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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, de Singel, Antwerp, Belgium
Hybrid SACD, stereo and multi-channel
BIS BIS-SACD-2058 [58:19]

I’ve admired the music of Wilhelm Stenhammar ever since, over thirty years ago, I made a speculative purchase of an LP of his wonderful Second Symphony in the recording by Stig Westerberg. Now on CD, this 1978 recording still sounds excellent and, as a performance, it remains the best I’ve ever heard (Caprice CAP 21151).
As far as I know, most of the recordings of his music originate in Scandinavia so it’s mildly surprising – and very pleasing – to find a Belgian orchestra responsible for these three performances. By coincidence, it’s only recently that I encountered the Royal Flemish Philharmonic in recordings of major works by Elgar (review). Their playing impressed me then and it impresses me once again in this Stenhammar programme. The Elgar recordings were made in the same venue: de Singel, Antwerp. A different company was involved then – albeit one that, like BIS, has a reputation for fine sound – and both they and BIS have achieved excellent recordings in what seems to be, acoustically, a very good venue.
There’s some fine music in Christian Lindberg’s programme though it seems clear that Stenhammar had serious doubts about both Excelsior! and the Serenade. The overture was first performed in 1896, achieving only modest success, and after a couple more performances Stenhammar appears to have given up on getting it played again and it disappeared from view completely for over seventy years after 1908. As for the Serenade, it was first heard, as a six-movement work, in 1914 but was then withdrawn, a failure, and extensively revised. The revisions included the complete excision of one movement – Reverenza – and the piece was re-launched, as a five-movement work, in 1919. This time it prospered.
It’s not easy to understand why Excelsior! was not more favourably regarded. It begins in a mood of breezy confidence, which seems to mirror the ‘Upwards and onwards’ sentiment of the extract from Goethe’s Faust, which Stenhammar inscribed in the score. As the work unfolds it is, perhaps, somewhat discursive and the composer is a little too inclined to indulge in ruminative episodes. However, the music is consistently attractive and it benefits here from a performance that mixes finesse and commitment. I enjoyed it very much.
I also enjoyed Lindberg’s rendition of the Serenade. The first of its five movements has the unusual tempo indication Allegrissimo. Tomas Block suggests, persuasively, in his notes that this might be interpreted as meaning not that the speed is to be break neck but rather that the music is to be played ‘with the greatest happiness.’ This would accord with the fresh, smiling music that we hear. Though Lindberg doesn’t rush in an unwarranted way his tempo is sprightly and this is an energetic, confident performance. The second movement is a gentle, nostalgic piece in waltz time and here the unnamed first clarinet and principal violin, Marta Sparnina, make distinguished contributions. This is a lovely, affectionate reading of the movement.
The scherzo is, for the most part, dexterous and spirited though there’s a short central section which goes at a slower pace. The quiet ending is also slow and that leads us seamlessly into the Notturno. This is warmly atmospheric music and in this performance there’s some lovely shaping of the phrases. The Finale is the most substantial movement. Here, in the words of Tomas Block, the music is ‘fresh and lively, and passes through a series of powerful surges.’ It’s quite an elaborate and eventful movement and it’s winningly played by Lindberg and his orchestra. The playful end is almost modest in nature and is a delightful way to conclude a most engaging work.
The programme is completed by an orchestral excerpt from Stenhammar’s substantial cantata Sången (The Song). The libretto for the cantata was written, at Stenhammar’s suggestion, by Ture Rangström. One suspects the composer came to regret the choice. The notes quote from a contemporary letter in which he moaned: ‘He really does make a meal of it’. Knowing the words from the complete 1982 recording conducted by Herbert Blomstedt (Caprice CAP 21358) it’s hard to disagree. The orchestral interlude here recorded comes right at the start of the second of the cantata’s two movements and it was probably intended to act as a contrasting bridge between the two choral sections. It’s a short but solemn and dedicated adagio. The music includes some majestic writing for brass and a good deal of expansive string material; it’s almost Brucknerian. Lindberg leads a noble, sonorous performance, his pacing pretty nearly identical to Blomstedt’s.
With highly enjoyable music in excellent performances, very fine sound and comprehensive documentation this disc represents an appetising proposition. Normally my eyebrows would rise, disapprovingly, if faced by a playing time of less than an hour. However, this is a case where value should be measured in terms of quality rather than quantity. Please may we now have the same forces in Stenhammar’s glorious Second Symphony?
John Quinn
Previous review: Dan Morgan (April 2014 Recording of the Month)