WILHELM STENHAMMAR: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 – Niklas Sivelöv, piano/ Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Mario Venzago – Naxos 8.572259, 67:57 ***1/2:
Wilhelm Stenhammar was, for most of the last half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, one of Sweden’s best known composers. He was known, initially, as a pianist of renown and wrote somewhat sparingly. He had developed a career as a conductor with directorships of the Stockholm and Gothenburg Philharmonic orchestras that took time away from composing.
What he did write became much appreciated, however, due to his accessible and familiar style. Aside from the piano concertos, Stenhammar wrote symphonies, concert overtures and a violin concerto (in addition to a large amount of solo piano music) that made the rounds in northern Europe for about forty years. One reason that Stenhammar never became better known as a composer outside of Sweden is that he died young of illness at only 56 years of age.
Listening to these two piano concertos reveals both why his works were instantly well-received but also why most modern listeners unfamiliar with Stenhammar would guess their creator to be one of several late nineteenth century giants but not him. I chose to listen to the two concertos in chronological order to understand their evolution a bit.
The Concerto No. 1, which is also his opus one from 1893, is a prime example. Throughout, the work bears resemblance to Brahms and the opening few lines of the first movement, molto moderato e maestoso, also echo some of Tchaikovsky. While this work was not actually the first thing that the then 22-year old wrote, it seems clear that Stenhammar intended this to be a “break through” work of sorts, introducing himself to his audience as an esteemed pianist-conductor who could also write. The Concerto is a very strong work, with some especially sparkling middle movements. The vivacissimo is crisp and very Tchaikovsky like and the subsequent andante has some lovely wind writing that sounds almost Scandinavian and a premonition of Sibelius. The impression, again, is of a very pleasant and well-crafted work that has even showy passages for the soloist and written in a vein that most people then (or now) are very familiar with. Interestingly, Naxos’ always helpful booklet notes – in this case; by Richard Whitehouse – point out that the score and parts were lost in a fire, later to be restored from an existing library copy of the published score, by composer-conductor Kurt Atterberg.
Stenhammar’s Piano Concerto No. 2, composed in 1908, is a bit more personal in that the style is not as seemingly derivative. Just the opening, featuring a rambling piano line that leads into a rhapsodic melody that is intruded upon by some punctuated wind and tympani bursts as well as a rising string line. As in the First Concerto, I found the central adagio to be a highlight of this work. There is a more chromatic and expansive theme in this case that reminded me just a bit of the Rachmaninov to come (chronologically). The finale is a grand and upbeat movement taking a version of the first movement’s main theme and transmuting it in key and feel. The work closes majestically with some brass restatements of the theme and a rousing close. I was glad to have listened to these works in composition order because you can certainly hear the development of the composer’s voice over the fifteen year span between their creations.
This is a splendid recording of works that should be considered more than just a curiosity. Soloist Niklas Sivelöv is a gifted pianist with an impressive international resume and the Malmö Symphony under Swiss Mario Vanzago plays with energy and conviction. Kudos to Naxos for producing a fine series of recordings of Stenhammar’s music. Previously, I was only familiar with his Symphony No. 1. This recording makes a solid addition to a very valuable collection.