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 Two unsuccessful operas in the 1890s were followed by a symphony in F major, completed, performed and immediately withdrawn, probably as a reaction to the revelatory experience of encountering Sibelius’s second symphony Op 43 for the first time.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.
from notes by Andrew Manze © 2009