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Hyperion Records

CDA67750 - Stenhammar: Piano Concertos
CDA67750

Recording details: November 2008
Helsingborg Concert Hall, Sweden
Produced by John H West
Engineered by Sean Lewis
Release date: November 2009
Total duration: 75 minutes 11 seconds

'Hyperion's 49th is a real humdinger … few will be able to resist the tumultous finale [Second Concerto]. Manze was a shrewd choice of conductor, as was Seta Tanyel as soloist, a pianist whose lyrical grace is matched by a no-holds-barred bravura and an innate sparkle that makes her the preferred choice over the excellent Mats Widlund in the First Concerto (Chandos). The recorded sound is of Hyperion's usual high standard' (Gramophone)

'This is a piece certainly worth having. Seta Tanyel is in full command of the pianistic demands, and Andrew Manze conducts the Helsingborg orchestra with finesse and energy' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Wilhelm Stenhammar's two piano concertos are astonishing works, and their neglect outside the composer's native Sweden is shameful. As with much of his output, they derive their complexity and strength from his need to find an individual voice while also staking a claim for a place in the evolving symphonic tradition that includes Beethoven and Brahms. The latter's Second Piano Concerto was Stenhammar's structural starting point in each instance, but while his vast First Concerto (1893) swerves between the enormity of epic and the intimacy of folk song, the taut, embattled Second (1909) places piano and orchestra in terse opposition until the tension is eventually released in one of the most forceful slow movements ever composed. The performances, bigger in scope and scale than any we've heard before, are exceptional. The soloist is Seta Tanyel, formidable in her declamatory intensity and lyrical weight. Andrew Manze, meanwhile, conducts with steely commitment' (The Guardian)

'Stenhammar's concertos embrace traditional concerto forms with flair and lyricism … charm, virtuosity, melodiousness and drama. Tanyel's fiery vigour is fabulous and the orchestra plays ample tribute to its fellow countryman under the impressive baton of Briton Andrew Manze' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Each piece is a fine, distinctive work, embodying many of the central qualities of this distinguished musician … splendidly played by the Turkish/Armenian pianist Seta Tanyel and well backed by Andrew Manze' (Dominion Post, New Zealand)

'Andrew Manze incisively shapes Stenhammar's sonorous woodwind writing, and the Helsingborg Symphony strings boast superior presence and heft' (ClassicsToday.com)

'Tanyel, backed by the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, turns in a wondrous performance … an ear opener that will whet your appetite for more … this set is a winner … simply tremendous' (Midwest Record, USA)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Piano Concertos
Vivacissimo  [4'30]
Andante  [12'33]
Adagio  [6'43]

Welcome to a genuinely outstanding disc in the Romantic Piano Concerto series. Sometimes the works found along the unfrequented byways of the Romantic piano tradition can exhibit no more than surface brilliance, but that cannot be said of these two splendid concertos by Stenhammar, recorded for the first time together on one CD.

The original orchestration of Stenhammar’s Piano Concerto No 1 is recorded here: a version which was long thought lost when the publishers were bombed during the second world war – a copy of the original was discovered in the Library of Congress in 1983. The twenty-two year old’s Opus 1 is a masterpiece, majestic and virtuosic at its opening; bringing the listener into a world of Nordic mystery at the start of the third movement; the finale ending with music of sad, reflective sweetness. The second concerto is a distinctly different work, with an novel, some have said ‘improvised’, structure, and a sense of tension between soloist and orchestra which is only resolved in the glorious virtuosic finale.

Hyperion is delighted to present the distinguished musician Andrew Manze in his new incarnation as a conductor. Directing the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, he is truly a force to be reckoned with. Pianist Seta Tanyel has featured on previous RPC recordings, always gaining the highest critical acclaim; however her magnificent playing on this new disc transcends her previous achievements.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Within Sweden, Wilhelm Stenhammar has long been revered as something of a father figure to twentieth-century Swedish music. His Serenade for orchestra, second symphony and string quartets are deservedly admired pieces and many of his songs, both for solo voice and for choir, are cherished in a country famous for its singing, in particular Sverige (‘Sweden’, Op 22 No 2). Even among his less well-known works, such as the cantatas, piano pieces, violin sonata and incidental music to Chitra, there are many gems to be found. His activities as a composer were often curtailed by a combination of poor health, a periodic lack of confidence and a heavy concert schedule. During his lifetime he was perhaps best known as a performer, both on the piano, often in collaboration with another Swedish musical luminary, the violinist Tor Aulin (1866–1914) and his string quartet, and on the podium, notably as conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, of which he was artistic director from 1906 to 1922. His enterprising programmes included many Swedish premieres of repertoire we now accept as central but which at the time was a hard sell: music by the likes of Nielsen, Sibelius, Reger and Mahler. Stenhammar programmed his own music only occasionally, perhaps owing to his innate modesty and his tendency to self-criticism, two rather Swedish characteristics that have resulted in his works being far less familiar abroad than they deserve.

As a young man Stenhammar never formally studied composition—that was to come much later, in 1909, with a vigorous, self-imposed regime of exercises in counterpoint—but his debut season in Stockholm shows how early he had acquired a wide range of interests and skills. On 2 February 1892, he played Saint-Saëns’ virtuosic piano quintet Op 14 with the Aulin string quartet, two weeks later saw the premiere of his first large-scale composition, I rosengården for soprano, tenor, choir and orchestra, and, sandwiched in between, was his concerto debut. The choice of concerto, Brahms’s first, Op 15 in D minor, was a significant one. Although Brahms was one of the most famous living composers, this was the concerto’s first public performance in Sweden, evidence of the young man’s adventurous musical appetite. In choosing this very concerto Stenhammar was making both the public statement that he was a Brahms man, rather than a camp follower of the Liszt school of virtuosity, and a private resolution to ally himself with the classical approach to composition, as opposed to the ‘modern’ way of Wagner and Bruckner. The third way out of the Brahms–Liszt/ classical–modern dilemma in those days, to explore one’s ethnic roots, was taken by some of his Swedish contemporaries, such as Hugo Alfvén and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, but Stenhammar himself never embraced folk music wholeheartedly. Rather the opposite happened: his music helped to delineate a Nordic, idyllic style.

Following his debut season Stenhammar spent a period in Berlin studying the piano before returning to Stockholm to write and perform his first piano concerto. The premiere was on 17 March 1893, in an all-Swedish programme (which included the first performance of Tor Aulin’s third violin concerto). Although it was far from being his first work (one might mention the exquisite ballad Florez och Blanzeflor, Op 3, 1891, as an early masterpiece), he had it published as his Op 1, thereby drawing attention to its clear Brahmsian credentials. The opening two orchestral chords could easily be (or are maybe intended to be?) mistaken for the opening of Brahms’s Tragic Overture Op 81 (1880). This opening gambit is then answered by the soloist, rather as Brahms did in his own second concerto, Op 83. Other Brahmsian touches range from the overall structure (Op 83 also has four movements) and key sequence (the movements are a major third apart: B flat minor–F sharp major–D major–B flat minor/major, an exact inversion of the innovative design of Brahms’ first symphony) to details such as the characteristic cross-rhythm of two against three between the pianist’s hands (track 1 from 1'20'', for example). But other influences are detectable also, not least that of Saint-Saëns in the second movement’s elfin lightness. It is hardly surprising that a twenty-two year old’s Op 1 is to a certain extent derivative but this concerto is far more than a collage of other men’s ideas. With the sublime horn melody at the start of the third movement we are transported to Nordic climes. And is there not something troll-like about the finale’s opening theme? Then, midway through the finale, the music changes its nature completely (at 6'40''). Stenhammar surprises us with a new mood and melody which, although the listener need not know it, is taken from one of his songs (Lutad mot gärdet, Op 8 No 1). The song’s text (by J L Runeberg, 1804–1877) is worth quoting, since it encapsulates the sad sweetness of Stenhammar’s early style and of fin-de-siècle Sweden.

Leaning on the fence
The boy stood at the girl’s arm
Looking over the cut meadow:
‘Summer has fled,
The flowers have wilted away;
But your cheek is still fair,
Blooming with roses and lilies
As before.’
Spring came around again
And there the boy stood alone!
The girl was gone,
She lay wilted in the lap of the earth;
The meadow was again green,
Smiling, rich with flowers.
English translation by Andrew Manze

It is with this atmosphere rather than the concerto’s earlier virtuosity that Stenhammar chose to end his Op 1, a brave move for a fledgling composer. That there was an original voice to be heard here is reflected in the many welcoming reactions the concerto had, both in the press and amongst some of the musical stars of the day who immediately recognized the work’s pedigree and invited the composer to perform it, notably Richard Strauss, Arthur Nikisch, Karl Muck and Hans Richter. Stenhammar himself only stopped performing the piece in 1909 when he had a second concerto to offer, but other pianists continued to play it for two more decades. After that, fate had other plans for the piece.

The years between the first and second concertos saw the launch of Stenhammar’s conducting career with the premiere of his concert overture Excelsior! Op 13 in 1896. But there were also some failures along the way which precipitated something of a crisis of confidence for Stenhammar the composer. Two unsuccessful operas in the 1890s were followed by a symphony in F major, completed, performed and immediately withdrawn, probably as a reaction to the revelatory experience of encountering Sibelius’s second symphony Op 43 for the first time. It could be said that in working for at least three years to complete the second piano concerto Stenhammar entered his ‘middle’ period. Any outward similarities between the two concertos (four movements, with the scherzo placed second and the middle two in keys far distant from home) are outnumbered by their different events and the later work’s novel, some have said ‘improvised’, structure. Unlike the first concerto, the second starts in an unsettling way: the piano’s tentative opening phrase in D minor is immediately contradicted by the orchestra’s cellos and basses which pull the key downwards. This tonal tug of war between orchestra and piano becomes the main ‘story’ and is all the more confusing because the soloist is the one defending the ‘correct’ key, a lone voice against the orchestra’s powerful attempts to destabilize it (at 1'34'' in track 5, for example). In a long, unaccompanied paragraph the piano presents a second theme and establishes some tonal security (from 2'04''—this passage is a good example of the huge chords Stenhammar requires of both the pianist’s hands) but the tension between soloist and orchestra about the very key of the piece (traditionally something agreed upon before starting!) runs through the whole of the first two movements. (Listen to the argument during the last half minute of track 5.) The cantabile third movement is in C sharp minor, the key to which the orchestra has been gravitating, and it is only by means of a beautiful and subtle transition that the soloist finally convinces the orchestra to come ‘home’ to D major for a glorious, virtuosic finale.

Any writer on Stenhammar owes a debt to Bo Wallner, whose substantial biography of the composer was published in 1991. That we have the full history of the first piano concerto, however, is thanks to Professor Allan B Ho, to whom I am grateful for the following information, taken from the introduction to his 1993 edition of the original version of the concerto and from private correspondence. The concerto was ‘published’ in 1894 by Hainauer of Breslau (modern Wroclaw) in the sense that a version for two pianos was printed and sold whereas the one manuscript score in existence was only available for hire, together with a set of orchestral parts. In the spring of 1945, during the fourteen-week siege of Breslau by the Russian army, Hainauer’s stock of music was destroyed and Stenhammar’s score and parts, at that time thought to be unique, literally went up in smoke. After the war, the composer’s widow Helga Stenhammar asked Kurt Atterberg to resurrect the lost concerto by reorchestrating it from the two-piano version, using a combination of his memory of the sound of the original, his intimate knowledge of Stenhammar’s style and his own considerable skill. Atterberg’s new version differs from Stenhammar’s original in several major, and countless minor ways, but it is an effective reconstruction, far more than a better-than-nothing version. Premiered in 1946 and recorded in 1977, it remains in circulation but has not been heard often since the early 1990s, because Allan Ho, in his words, ‘stumbled on’ a second copy of the composer’s original score in the USA. ‘My doctoral dissertation was on a host of Romantic piano concertos, so in 1983 I was at the Library of Congress [in Washington D.C.] photocopying parts of many scores. I photocopied just a few excerpts of the Stenhammar first piano concerto at that time. I knew immediately that it was different from what I had heard on the Sterling recording of the Atterberg reconstruction but, having accepted Bo Wallner’s and others’ declarations that the original was lost, I didn’t at the time realize the significance of this discovery … It was located in the regular closed stacks, as nothing more important than any other music score.’

After some detective work Allan Ho produced two possible odysseys for the score, knowing that it had passed through the hands of a Berlin antiquarian music dealer, Leo Liepmannssohn, in 1904. Stenhammar studied in Berlin during 1892–3 and no doubt hatched the idea for the concerto there. He was in Berlin again in 1894 to perform it, so it is possible that there was a copy of the score which passed to the Library of Congress via Liepmannssohn. Alternatively, Hainauer may have produced a copy so that the concerto could receive its US premiere (in New York on 1 March 1898) without risking the original score on a trans-Atlantic journey or losing the possibility of further performances while it was out of European circulation. The soloist at that US premiere was the German pianist Franz Rummel who, soon after, moved to Berlin. Did the score travel back with him? He died in 1901 and his American widow moved back to settle in Washington D.C. Thence to the Library of Congress? QED? We may never know but we should rejoice that, thanks to Professor Ho, we have Stenhammar’s Op 1 back intact. It is that original version which is presented here, in the hope that both Stenhammar’s fine concertos will continue their worldwide travels by means of this recording—without further mishap.

Andrew Manze © 2009


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