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Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871-1927)
Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 1 (1893) [49:53] Sensommarnätter (Late Summer Nights), Op.33 (1914) [17:16]
Irène Mannheimer (piano), Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit
rec. September 1977, Gothenburg Concert Hall (Concerto), March 1989, Studio 3, Swedish Radio, Stockholm STERLING CDS1004-2 [67:14]
Wilhelm Stenhammar’s First Piano Concerto is the work of his youth—the opus number already suggests as much. At the time, his compositional activities focussed on the piano, and his sound-world was still closely aligned with the German romantics whose music he took in during his studies. His musical education came at the hands of Richard Andersson, his piano professor at the Swedish Royal Conservatory (a Clara Schumann pupil). Stenhammar was further molded during his subsequent studies in Berlin (1890-1892). It is not surprising, then, that the obvious model for the grand, 50-minute Piano Concerto No.1 is Brahms in general and his Piano Concerto in the same key, B-flat minor, also in four movements. On hearing the very opening of the first movement, meanwhile, the ears tell you right off the bat: “Hello, Brahms Tragic Overture!” Stenhammar, who was also a pianist, performed his concerto all over the world, with the likes of Richard Strauss and Hans Richter conducting. Whenever Rob Barnett, MusicWeb’s go-to Stenhammar-man, has written about them, he also invoked Edvard Grieg’s, Charles Villiers Stanford’s Second, and Sergei Bortkiewicz’s piano concertos as analogies… and I can see why. Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Schumann are also in the vicinity.
Stenhammar is a wonderful composer for anyone who loves the late romantic style of these fellow travelers. Granted, at the time, this was backward-looking music. But since we are largely backward-hearing listeners anyway, that is no longer a concern. Whether the music is worth hearing is rather the question. For Stenhammar, that question has been answered in the affirmative, I would think, but it is best to affirm it oneself, continually. This concerto, this disc certainly helps to that end. The recording is relatively old—1977 for the concerto, remastered in 2003—and very good.
There is competition, of course, even in this repertoire. Seta Tanyel has recorded Stenhammar’s both concertos with the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Manze (on Hyperion, review). Mats Widlund has recorded the First on Chandos, and so did Love Derwinger with the Malmö SO under Paavo Järvi, for BIS (including all the other orchestral music; review). The latter has also been re-issued on Brilliant Classics (now only including the symphonies but still a fine booklet; review). I have not heard, but now rather want to hear, Seta Tanyel, but the other recordings do not, at the very least, best Irène Mannheimer with Charles Dutoit. What Mannheimer/Dutoit may lack in that last bit of spark in the jaunty Vivacissimo second movement, they more than make up in the sweepingly lyrical and powerfully gorgeous Andante (with a hint of Brahms’s Waltz in A-Flat Major in the undergrowth?), for which they take all their merry time getting through, before launching themselves into the memorable, thematically slightly repetitive grand finale, Allegro commodo.
Compared to the concerto, the fairly substantial, five-movement Sensommarnätter (Late Summer Nights) becomes rather a bagatelle. Long in the making, finished in 1914, this is Scandinavian Indian summer meets nocturne, a few steps away from the world of Brahms but not quite yet arriving at the Sibelian idiom that Stenhammar approximated in his late works. It is lit by a long-lasting but pale sun, and rather melancholy—a feeling that Irène Mannheimer gets to very nicely. So does Cassandra Wyss (Capriccio, review), whose account is even more indulgent, whereas Martin Sturfält (Hyperion, review) takes a swifter, more bubbly approach. Bernt Wilhelmsson (IntimMusik) falls in between, but does little—arguably less than Mannheimer—to make this music sound less slight than it is.