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Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871-1927)
String Quartet no.4 in A minor, op.25 (1904-09) [33:15]
Lodolezzi Sjunger (Lodolezzi Sings), op.39 (1919) [7:27]
String Quartet no.3 in F, op.18 (1897-1900) [32:13]
Stenhammar Quartet
rec. Petrus Kyrkan, Stocksund, Sweden, June 2012; April and October 2011 (no.4).
BIS BIS-SACD-1659 [73:47] 

String Quartet no.3 in F, op.18 (1897-1900) [32:53]
String Quartet no.4 in A minor, op.25 (1904-09) [35:30]
String Quartet no.5 in C, op.18 (1897-1900) [20:04]
String Quartet no.6 in D minor, op.25 (1904-09) [25:18]
Oslo Quartet
rec. Jar Kirke, Oslo, 1-4 March 2006 (5 and 6); 8-10 March 2007 (3 and 4).
CPO 777426-2 [68:23 + 45:22]

Wilhelm Stenhammar lived a relatively short life, but still managed to write seven string quartets. These two recent releases see a Swedish and a Norwegian quartet in direct competition with each other for cycle benchmark status. The only other to consider is the sequence of 1980s AAD recordings available on the Caprice label, still to be had on the internet (CAP 21337, 21338, 21339). This set consisted of three different quartets - the Fresk, Copenhagen and Gotland - who recorded two works each. Rather randomly, Caprice re-spliced these so that each CD featured two ensembles - with noticeably different engineering creating a rather needless jar.
 
Stenhammar has this to say about his quartets, reproduced in the CPO notes: "…in these Arnold Schönberg times I dream of art far away from Arnold Schönberg, clear, joyful, and naive". They are certainly conservative in their conception, both structurally and harmonically backward-looking. Stenhammar saw himself as following in the Beethovenian tradition with these works, and this is especially obvious in the Sixth, which is sullen, reflective, chromatic on the one hand - a tribute to Stenhammar's late friend Tor Aulin - but elegantly Haydnesque in parts on the other. Echoes of pure Haydn are most prominent in the upbeat Fifth, aptly subtitled 'Serenade', whilst the Third has elements that recall Brahms, even if it is Beethoven whose shadow again looms large in the closing stages. Masterfully interwoven folk elements are everywhere too, especially in the Third and the Fourth, either among the finest quartets ever to have come out of Sweden. In spite of Stenhammar's own modest aims, there is nothing naive about any of these exquisitely crafted, highly distinctive and memorable works.
 
There are six quartets by traditional numbering, but a seventh, in F minor dating from 1897 and withdrawn by the composer after its first performance, appears on volume 2 of the Stenhammar Quartet's survey, due for release at the time of writing (October 2013). The quartets from the Third onwards are generally considered Stenhammar's mature works - perhaps that is why the Oslo Quartet's recording begins there. The Stenhammar’s volume is definitely the first of three, and with the inclusion of the F minor will almost certainly be the first truly complete cycle - and, it must be said, the most authoritative.
 
BIS also have the better sound, though both Hybrid SACDs knock the Caprice recordings into a cocked hat. On the other hand, potential investors into either edition should be aware of both sets of musicians' breathing habits. Naturally, every performer has the inalienable right to respire whilst playing, yet there have to be limits. The Stenhammar first violinist is unaware of any, it seems: like countless others before him, alas, he leaves almost no soft passage unsnorted. Not all listeners may notice, and others may notice but not care - perhaps being inclined to stertor themselves. Yet some at least are sure to find all the catarrhal melodrama an unattractive distraction from the music. The Oslo Quartet are in some regards worse: CPO's miking is more central, which has the advantage of rendering the first violin less noisy, yet the listener pays by now being able to hear all four musicians whenever they start hyperventilating. The (cellist's?) panting at the start of the second movement of the Fifth Quartet, and the slurping noise at the end of the Sixth, are ludicrously affected. The fact that many engineers do manage to record quartets without picking up every inhalation indicates that others, like those of BIS and CPO, are misplacing microphones. The good news is that on both CDs there are long stretches where such respiratory shenanigans are all but inaudible - generally all the louder, vigorous sections. 

If CPO do undertake a second volume to give BIS a run for their money, their producer would do well to discontinue the artificial reverb at works' ends, a practice that, like extravagant breathing, has no place in recordings of serious music. In the meantime, the Stenhammar Quartet, despite their own on-record sniffing, are cruising to the cycle to have of this underrated composer's anachronistic but actually rather profound string quartets.  

Byzantion
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