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Hyperion Records

CDA67689 - Stenhammar: Piano Music
A View of Gotland, Sweden by Oskar Bergman (1879-1963)
Private Collection / © Whitford & Hughes, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67689

Recording details: April 2007
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Phil Rowlands
Release date: November 2008
Total duration: 75 minutes 25 seconds

'Sturfält plays all this music with powerful feeling and understanding, and great spontaneity—as at a live recital—and the recording is very real indeed. This is a disc well worth exploring' (Gramophone)

'Martin Sturfält is clearly a brilliant pianist with plenty of power. These performances are very well recorded and immediately make a good impression' (American Record Guide)

'Sturfält is a most convincing ambassador for Stenhammar's music, the Beethovenian Molto vivace second movement to the A flat Sonata demonstrating a superlative command of the instrument and a capacity to extract all the Scandinavian vehemence from the music. Sturfält's booklet notes are commendably clear' (International Record Review)

'Martin Sturfält's recording … is the most significant tribute to Stenhammar's absolute understanding of the piano's voice. Subtle, agile and beautifully shaded' (The Independent on Sunday)

Piano Music
Poco presto  [2'26]
Presto agitato  [3'15]
Poco allegretto  [2'38]
Dolce scherzando  [4'41]
Lento e mesto  [2'12]
Allegro  [7'16]

Stockholm-born Wilhelm Stenhammar was the most outstanding musical personality in Sweden of his time. As a pianist he brought high-quality music-making to audiences throughout the country through several hundred solo recitals and chamber music concerts; as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra he created Sweden’s first truly professional ensemble, persistently championing contemporary Scandinavian composers and introducing his audiences to numerous new works; and as a composer (like Elgar, largely self-taught) he created some of the most important and carefully crafted music ever to come out of Sweden, ranging from symphonic works and operas to chamber music and lieder. The start of Stenhammar’s career was in many ways that of an archetypal Romantic pianist-composer: even as a child he had already composed numerous pieces for piano, including three sonatas, the first dating from 1880.

Much of his piano music is firmly in the repertoire, including the extraordinary Nights of Late Summer—one of Stenhammar’s last works. The pastoral title and miniaturist structure belie the enormous emotional range of the piece. It is a deeply romantic exploration of moods of introspective gloom and wandering desolation. The five short movements make great demands on the pianist. The Three Fantasies Op 11 from 1895 have become the most frequently played of Stenhammar’s piano pieces. The musical language is more immediately communicative than in Stenhammar’s other piano works, something which has without doubt contributed to their popularity.

However, this disc also includes a complete rarity: the early Piano Sonata in G minor. This piece was never published, and was tracked down by Martin Sturfält in a handwritten copy from 1940 (used for all previous recordings) which contained a number of mistakes. Sturfält has edited the work for publication, and it is this version that has been recorded here.

This beautifully played disc is the perfect introduction to Sweden’s ‘national composer’.


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MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £7.45ALAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £7.45 CDA67370  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Stockholm-born Wilhelm Stenhammar was the most outstanding musical personality in Sweden of his time. As a pianist he brought high quality music-making to audiences throughout the country through several hundred solo recitals and chamber music concerts; as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra he created Sweden’s first truly professional ensemble, persistently championing contemporary Scandinavian composers and introducing his audiences to numerous new works; and as a composer (like Elgar, largely self-taught) he created some of the most important and carefully crafted music ever to come out of Sweden, ranging from symphonic works and operas to chamber music and lieder. Yet there is something deeply enigmatic about Stenhammar’s character. For most of his life he was torn between awareness of his extraordinary artistic talent (and the expectations that came with it) and an extremely destructive self-criticism. This inner struggle manifests itself particularly strongly in his ambiguous relationship with his own instrument, the piano.

The start of Stenhammar’s career was in many ways that of an archetypal Romantic pianist–composer: already as a child he had composed numerous pieces for piano, including three sonatas, the first dating from 1880. His first success as a performer came soon after his first serious piano studies, commencing in 1887 with the former Clara Schumann pupil Richard Andersson. But it was in the early 1890s that he became established as a force to be reckoned with: he appeared as soloist in the first Swedish performance of Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto and, more importantly, gave the premiere in 1894 of his own Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor Op 1. The latter occasion was so successful that it registered far beyond the borders of Sweden and led to Stenhammar performing the Concerto over the following decade with conductors such as Richard Strauss (the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) and Hans Richter (the Hallé Orchestra). Curiously however, in recitals Stenhammar hardly ever performed his own solo works, focusing instead mainly on the Viennese classics, and by the early 1900s Stenhammar the composer gradually turned his interest away from the piano in favour of the string quartet, the human voice and the orchestra.

At the age of nineteen, however, Stenhammar was certainly intent on composing ambitious works for the piano. The Piano Sonata in G minor, composed in the spring and summer of 1890, according to his own list of works up to 1891, marks a clear change from the childhood pieces. While an indebtedness to his predecessors is still obvious—Schumann’s Sonata Op 22 in the same key seems to have served as a particular inspiration—so are to an even larger extent the first occurrences of many of his own musical trademarks. Here we encounter the introspective lyricism so often associated with the Scandinavian Romantics; even more striking, though, is the passionately dramatic and rather severe side that defines Stenhammar among his contemporaries.

The Sonata follows the traditional Romantic four-movement scheme, but the youthful exuberance that Stenhammar infuses into the textbook model becomes apparent from the very opening of the first movement. The dynamic spectrum of this Allegro vivace e passionato, as well as the technical demands it makes on the pianist, make the composer’s intentions clear: this is music intended for the concert hall rather than for domestic music-making by amateur musicians, a fact that puts the work in a unique place in the history of Swedish music. The nocturne-like second movement, and the folk-tune-scented Trio section of the Scherzo, might have a more typical Scandinavian flavour with some (for Stenhammar) unusual echoes of Grieg, but with the finale we return to the emotionally charged atmosphere of the beginning. The Prestissimo double thirds of the highly strung coda, find Stenhammar increasing the virtuosic demands on the pianist, and one can not help wondering whether these passages were within reach of Stenhammar’s own technique. Even if they were, they were certainly far beyond any other contemporary Swedish pianist’s ability, and since Stenhammar never performed the Sonata after giving its premiere at a charity concert in May 1891—and since it remained unpublished until 2008—the work was forgotten, and remained so until the manuscript was rediscovered in the 1940s. The autograph has the character of a fair copy, complete with a title page in the composer’s own hand, written in German, a sign that he had intended to present it to a foreign publisher—an important step in the career of a young composer.

If the G minor Sonata is full of youthful exuberance, then Nights of Late Summer (‘Sensommarnätter’) Op 33 seems to inhabit a different world altogether. The descriptive title has often caused the work to be compared with other popular piano miniatures by Stenhammar’s contemporaries such as Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Emil Sjögren. But although the five movements that make up the work are relatively short, the emotional range they inhabit is anything but miniature, nor are their demands on the performer. As in the case of the G minor Sonata, this is hardly music for amateur pianists.

Stenhammar certainly shared a love for the Swedish landscape with his late nineteenth-century artist colleagues, and there is no doubt that the title at least partly refers to the nocturnal atmosphere at the time of the year when the short Swedish summer starts coming to an end, the nights become darker, and feelings of nostalgia and melancholy are evoked. But a psychological interpretation seems equally plausible: nature as a metaphor for the late summer of life. Stenhammar has often been described as a man who grew old early and while Nights of Late Summer was published in 1914 it had been, in his own words, ‘carried in the head for many years’. The most likely time of composition seems to be the early 1900s, a time of artistic crisis and lack of self-confidence when the composer was in his early thirties. Nights of Late Summer, more than any other of Stenhammar’s piano works, reflects the neurotic nature of the composer. The prevailing mood of the first movement is one of introspective gloom and wandering desolation. The restless and agitated second piece continues the C minor key of the first, and builds up to a passionate climax, only to disappear back into the shadows. The almost impressionistic suspended chords of the third piece, which cleverly manages to avoid the tonic of the main key of A flat major until the final bars, momentarily evoke a calmer, more comforting mindset only to be shattered by the eruptive, almost manic fourth movement. The carefully worked-out key scheme continues from the C sharp minor of the fourth piece to F sharp minor in the fifth piece, which initially is archaic and somewhat ironic in character before it loses itself in a chromatic labyrinth and finally dissolves. Nights of Late Summer and the Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor Op 23, completed in 1907, were to be Stenhammar’s last works for piano.

The Three Fantasies Op 11 from 1895 have become the most frequently played of Stenhammar’s piano pieces. Indeed, they are unique in being the only works of his own which he performed in his recitals. In the years following the composition of the G minor Sonata in 1890 Stenhammar had spent seven months, during 1892 and 1893, in Berlin, studying the piano with Heinrich Barth. (It is interesting to note that he chose not to take any composition lessons, even though he spent a great deal of his time in Berlin composing.) In the veritable war that raged between the followers of Wagner and Brahms, Barth was firmly on the Brahms side. Stenhammar found himself torn between the two camps; as scholar Bo Wallner put it: ‘In daytime he played Brahms, in the evenings he indulged in Wagner.’ It is no surprise then that these German masters were to serve as his role models during the 1890s.

It is certainly easier to discern Brahms than Wagner in the musical language of the Three Fantasies, particularly in the passionate first piece with its sonorous opening chords and in the elegiac sentiment of the third. The piano-writing in the Fantasies is less demanding and the musical language more immediately communicative than in Stenhammar’s other piano works, something which has without doubt contributed to their popularity. The two contrasting sections that alternate in the first piece remain static without development, and it is the cumulative effect of these that drives the piece towards its climactic ending. By contrast, development is a strong feature in the playful middle piece, where the musical fabric consists of short syncopated fragments that, by cleverly avoiding the strong beats, keep the music aloft without touching the ground. Only in its final bars does it come to rest on a pianissimo E major triad where Stenhammar lets the third (G sharp) fade away while the other notes in the chord are repeated, thus providing a bridge to the E minor opening of the third Fantasy, again in the key of B minor. Its declamatory theme in dactylic rhythm (something of a favourite of Stenhammar’s) provides long ascending cantabile lines in the outer sections and, inverted, it turns into a dance-like middle section. As a distant echo, the dance motif reappears at the end of the coda as the piece gently fades away in B major.

In the Sonata in A flat major Op 12, composed the same year as the Fantasies, Stenhammar once again seems to have turned to the German masters for inspiration, although not Schumann or Brahms this time, but Beethoven, whose piano sonatas would frequently feature in Stenhammar’s piano recitals later in life. To infuse his own ideas into an external framework appears to have been a deliberate strategy in several of Stenhammar’s early works, and the Sonata Op 12 has both structural and rhetorical similarities with Beethoven’s Sonata Op 101.

The lyrical first movement uses two time signatures—3/4 and 4/4—and although it incorporates elements of sonata form, Stenhammar once again keeps the themes static. Instead he lets the music move through three tonal centres: A flat, C and E (where the recapitulation occurs combining the 3/4 and 4/4 meters!) and back to A flat major. The only motif that undergoes any development at all is the chorale-like theme (foreshadowing the opening of Stenhammar’s Piano Concerto No 2) which introduces each tonal area and which evolves into an extended coda. The Scherzo that follows is the most Beethovenian movement of the Sonata with its dramatic use of dynamics and registers as well as its use of short thematic cells. Stenhammar once again changes the metre to triple time in the restless and eruptive Trio section, a reminiscence of which returns in the coda. The slow and sombre third movement has the character of an intermezzo which leads, via a dramatic transition, straight into a highly energized finale, whose daring chromatic modulations juxtaposed with diatonic passages look forward to Stenhammar’s later works.

Stenhammar performed the A flat major Sonata twice—the second time as a mere twenty-eight-year-old—and for the remaining half of his life, his career as a pianist was largely given to playing other men’s music. There is little evidence as to why Stenhammar the composer abandoned his own instrument (with the exception of the exquisite piano parts for his lieder) after 1907, but certainly a few intensive years of counterpoint studies begun around the same time gave him new means of expression, well suited to writing for orchestra and string quartet. By the early 1920s Stenhammar’s physical as well as mental health started to deteriorate, and although he carried on touring as a performer he had lost the energy to compose.

Martin Sturfält © 2008

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