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Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871-1927)
Excelsior! symphonic overture, Op. 13 (1896) [13:50]
Mellanspel ur Sången, Op. 44 (1921) [6:14]
Serenade in F major, Op. 31 (1914-1919) [37:16]
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Christian Lindberg
rec. March 2013, deSingel, Antwerp, Belgium
Hybrid SACD, stereo and multi-channel
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
BIS BIS-SACD-2058 [58:19]

Less than an hour’s playing time, I hear you cry; well yes, but with eclassical’s per-second charging you only pay for what you get. In this case $8.74 (£5.21) or if you take advantage of this particular deal you can also download the 16-bit flacs of Neeme Järvi’s 1986 recording of the First Symphony for a mere $5.52 (£3.29). These limited offers are a sign of major changes in the way music is bought and sold; indeed, as much as I prefer the physical product I find myself attracted more and more by the simplicity and convenience of downloads. I’ve long since run out of shelf space for discs, so I welcome the fact that all my downloads – more than a hundred at the last count – fit comfortably on a portable hard drive the size of a paperback.
Admittedly 58 minutes or less of music on a silver disc is more of a problem, which is why BIS chose to release Thomas Adés’s Violin Concerto and Couperin Studies – all 34 minutes of it - as a download only (review). All of which makes me certain that downloading as a means of delivering reasonably priced, high-res music makes sense for labels and listeners alike. That said, far too many sites charge silly sums for their downloads – in some cases more than the equivalent disc – so they will need to re-jig their business model if they want to succeed in this rapidly changing business.
Now back to the music. Swedish trombonist and conductor Christian Lindberg continues to impress in both roles; most recently I’ve enjoyed hearing him as a soloist in this irreverent programme (review) and as an equally talented baton-waver in Allan Pettersson’s powerful Ninth Symphony (review). He gets off to a rousing start here with Stenhammar’s splendid Excelsior!, premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic no less. Lindberg gives the overture plenty of surge and space and the BIS engineers respond with sonics to match. This may not efface memories of Järvi’s more urgent and visceral account (also on BIS) but it’s much better recorded.
One might expect Lindberg’s Flemish orchestra to trail Jarvi’s mighty Gothenburgers - the latter recorded live – but their ringing horns and impassioned strings are superb; that’s especially so in the overture’s imposing climaxes. Even in the solemn environs of the interlude from Sången, the cantata Stenhammar wrote to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, the RFP play with a quiet unanimity and gravitas that engages and delights. Perhaps we can now look forward to a BIS recording of the complete cantata to complement the Caprice version recorded in the 1980s.
The most substantial work here is the five-movement Serenade, which Stenhammar withdrew ‘for revision’ after its premiere in 1914. Brimming with gentle charm and suffused with radiant harmonies it’s a pearl of a piece. After a restrained Overture the soft-pulsing Canzonetta is genuinely ear-pricking. Lindberg paces it all so well and the orchestra respond with playing of great subtlety and feeling. Timbres are true and this recording gives the music a rich inner glow that’s hugely satisfying. As for the Scherzo – Presto it's light on its feet and the atmospherically placed brass bring real frisson to the mix.
The Serenade is such civilised music, so fresh and spontaneous, and I doubt you’ll hear a lovelier, more sun-dappled account than this. Tipping into night Lindberg gives us an evanescent reading of the Notturno; it’s delivered with astonishing finesse and, where necessary, silk-spun ardour. Sensitively shaped and dynamically sophisticated this version of the Serenade surely trumps all others; the recording is class-leading too. Nowhere is that clearer than in the tumbling detail and animation of the Finale.
What a refined and responsive band this is, and how splendid Antwerp’s deSingel concert hall. Like the Liège orchestra that enchanted me in Respighi (review) this is an ensemble whose polished playing belies its lower rank. And after a few disappointing recordings I’m happy to say BIS have more than made amends with this one. Very detailed liner-notes – downloadable - complete a luscious package.
At last, Stenhammar gets the fine performances he deserves; first-rate sound, too.
Dan Morgan