Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871-1927)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 1 (1893) [45:53]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 23 (1907) [29:21]
Seta Tanyel (piano)
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 24-28 November 2008, Helsingborg Concert Hall, Sweden
The Romantic Piano Concerto series, Vol. 49
HYPERION CDA67750 [75:16]

Back in 1988 - having heard a recording by Neeme Jšrvi of this unknown and unprinted work - I conducted the first English performance of Stenhammarís first symphony on the South Bank - and with a youthful Tasmin Little in her first Sibelius concerto. It struck me as wonderfully Brucknerian from its six-horn start.

Stenhammar was an iconic figure in Swedenís musical history from the 1890s until his death. The first piano concerto is his Op.1 written in his early twenties, and inevitably showing influences upon its musical language. Thereís a strong dose of Brahms laced with Chopin or Saint-SaŽns in lighter passages. Its technical demands show how good a pianist he was, though by no means was he a circus trick virtuoso. It is a substantial (long) work in four movements (so too was Brahmsís second), only the infectiously skittish, Mendelssohnian scherzo disproportionately shorter than the rest of the work. I could not, nor wanted to, resist the temptation to hear it again having listened through the whole disc. The slow movement is a revelation, a beautifully lyrical essay with first signs of its Nordic origin laid out at the start in a French horn solo, the very end a magical blend of piano and the quietest controlled high and accurate string playing youíll get to hear. The finale is by no means an anti-climax, Stenhammar has more to say in a kaleidoscope of moods ranging from scherzo-like passages (Carnival of the Animals at one point) to a beautifully simple and rather sad song of childhood love which ends in death (a song of his own as Op.8 No.1).

The second concerto is a more dramatic, even troubled work dating from 1909 by which time Stenhammar was an established conductor. By now Sibelius was a serious force to be reckoned with, and the already self-effacing Swede was in awe of the Finnís second symphony, causing him to have self-doubts, even withdrawing a symphony. In this work we have an extraordinary tug of war between soloist and orchestra in the matter of key, a struggle which persists through the first two (again of four movements but presented as two conjoined pairs. The Adagio is clearly the music of a man who by now has lived and to a certain extent suffered, though Stenhammar was by now three years into his sixteen-year tenure as music director in Gothenburg from 1906 to 1922. Perhaps this explains the more joyous mood of the finale in whose key (D major) both forces are happily reconciled, with a protracted coda which will not fail to thrill.

Conductor Andrew Manze - whose booklet essay gives a fascinating account of how the original version of the first concerto came to be rediscovered in the 1980s - makes an ideally sympathetic partnership with pianist Seta Tanyel, achieving impeccable ensemble. Both are clearly devotees of this music, with Tanyel in full command of her formidable technique and making it all sound so easy, her fast passage work amazing in its clarity, while meeting head-on Stenhammarís demands for fistfuls of notes in each hand. Manze has convincing control of his Helsingborg forces and, apart from a moment in the woodwinds at the end of the scherzo in the first concerto, draws stylish playing from them in all departments. The sound is pin-point accurate in its balance, thanks to that fine recording engineer Sean Lewis. This is highly engaging music, with both concertos worthy of a place in the concert hall, and this disc will, I hope, help the cause. It is an outstanding achievement which more than meets Hyperionís demandingly high standards, and which finds me wanting to extend my Stenhammar conducting repertoire beyond that revelatory First Symphony twenty-two years ago.

Christopher Fifield