Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871-1927)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor Op.1 (1893) [42:02]
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor Op.23 (1904-07) [25:52]
Niklas Sivelöv (piano)
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Mario Venzago
rec. Malmö Concert Hall, Malmö, Sweden, 25-29 August 2009
NAXOS 8.572259 [67:57]
Listening to this instantly appealing and well-crafted music put a query in my head. I wondered how many times one of Sweden's greatest composers had been performed at the self-styled "The World's Greatest Classical Music Festival" - the BBC Proms. The answer - in over 100 hundred years might surprise - seven pieces. Dig a little further and you find that of the seven, three are of the same brief orchestral work; the interlude from the cantata The Song and three are of orchestral songs. Indeed three items were in a single concert. Which leaves a single performance of an important work - the Symphony No.2 on 12 September 1985. As part of "The World's Greatest Classical Music Festival" we have benefited from a concert by Michael Ball, two MGM Musicals extravaganzas and a homage to Stephen Sondheim to name but four recent 'happenings' but clearly Stenhammar simply does not measure up in the pantheon of the greats.
All of which is a slightly long-winded way of saying this is wonderfully attractive music of consummate skill that deserves to be far better known. Although there is recorded competition for this music - I have not heard the recent Hyperion disc (review review) in their Romantic Piano Concerto series - at the Naxos price advantage and deploying the idiomatic and ever excellent Malmö Symphony Orchestra this is a winner. Soloist Niklas Sivelöv has a Stenhammar pedigree having recorded a solo recital disc of the composer also on Naxos (8.553730); not forgetting Martin Stürfalt’s solo recital on Hyperion. He proves to be an excellent and confident guide. Stenhammar was one of those extraordinarily gifted musicians initially famed as a pianist - his 1892 solo debut was playing the mighty Brahms Piano concerto No. 1 - then as a conductor - he was artistic director and principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra from 1906-1922. Only after that did be become known as a composer. His death from a stroke at the age of just 56 deprived the world of a major talent. As ever in such circumstances it is hard not to speculate what great works might have sprung from his pen if only he had lived another twenty years.
Naxos place the larger sprawling Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 1 second on the disc. Stenhammar had written earlier works but the addition of the Op.1 status shows the significance he felt the work had for him as a composer. The date proximity to his concert debut mentioned above makes the shade of Brahms that hangs over the work all the more understandable; particularly in his deployment of a 'symphonic' four-movement form. If one is being harsh - at over forty minutes it probably outstays its young composer's ability to handle his material over such a time-span. That being said, Sivelöv makes a very convincing and muscular case for the work. Certainly, by taking a good five minutes less time than Mats Widlund on Chandos (an epic 47:18) he minimises the discursive elements in the work. At the budget price point the main challenge comes from the Brilliant Classics re-release of BIS-sourced recordings (review). I have not heard the Brilliant/BIS (review) first concerto but this current recording's 2nd Concerto is considerably finer than Cristina Ortiz's performance. Simply put Sivelöv has a more impressive technique. This is most clear in the quicksilver scherzo which is interpolated into the first movement proper. Here the kinship with Rachmaninov in general and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini in particular stands out. Important to note though that the Stenhammar is the earlier work by some twenty-seven years. Sivelöv is absolutely superb here; all fleet gossamer passage-work and dextrous cross-rhythms. Ortiz plays the notes - just about - but it is far more laboured and as such counter to the spirit of the music. Undoubtedly this is one of Stenhammar's finest works - he still uses the four movement form but here it has been distilled down to a powerfully concise twenty-five minutes and is played in a single unbroken span. I would have thought that there is little debate that it is the finest Scandinavian piano concerto post-Grieg pre-Rautavaara and as such its neglect in the UK at least is a mystery - especially given its instant appeal. Conductor Mario Venzago is totally at home in this idiom and the Malmö orchestra sound very fine. It is not quite an open and shut case in favour of the new disc; the Brilliant set offers three discs thereby including the superb Symphony No.2 as well as the very Germanic - and subsequently disowned - Symphony No.1 and as such is excellent value. It should be noted that the important Symphony No.2 receives a good but not great performance in that Brilliant set. The Naxos disc is better recorded - the early BIS sonics just a little glassy and distant compared to the new disc but conversely the Gothenburg players - in the second concerto at least are just a little tighter than the current Malmö group. Stenhammar deploys thematic material that joins notes across beats almost obsessively and 'coming off the tie' with perfect unanimity gives the orchestra an occasional headache. Nothing in the recording information or indeed in terms of extraneous noise suggest live performances but that kind of technical performance glitch is more common in the concert hall than the recording studio.
Naxos have been slowly working their way through the bulk of Stenhammar's modest catalogue - in quantitative terms - although in a rather piece-meal fashion with each disc using a different combination of orchestras and soloists/conductors. I would suggest this new release would be a fine place to start an investigation of Stenhammar's music although the Symphony No.2 and the Serenade would need to be high up the list of requirements - the former in the classic Stig Westerberg/ Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra version. Certainly it remains both absurd and shameful that institutions like the Proms have yet fully to embrace the music of this most talented yet modest man
For all lovers of romantic piano concertos this disc will bring great pleasure.
This is a winner.