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Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 1
original version; first performed on 17 March 1893

'Stenhammar: Piano Concertos' (CDA67750)
Stenhammar: Piano Concertos
Movement 1: Molto moderato e maestoso – Sostenuto e tranquillo – Agitato
Movement 2: Vivacissimo
Movement 3: Andante
Movement 4: Allegro commodo – Andante con moto

Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 1
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.

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.

from notes by Andrew Manze © 2009

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Details for CDA67750 track 3
Recording date
28 November 2008
Recording venue
Helsingborg Concert Hall, Sweden
Recording producer
John H West
Recording engineer
Sean Lewis
Hyperion usage
  1. Stenhammar: Piano Concertos (CDA67750)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: November 2009
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