As one might guess from his dates (1871–1927),Wilhelm Stenhammar
was a transitional figure, who has been somewhat overlooked perhaps
because his rootswere so deeply in the 19th century.However, hiswork
is vindicated by its quality. His highly romantic Symphony no 2. came
out the same year as Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony and Nielsen’s Fourth.
Less distinctive than either, Stenhammar’s more conventional Second
Symphony nonetheless has sweep, freshness, beautiful melodies, and
exciting drive. It is accompanied on a BIS CD (251), by his rousing
overture Excelsior, which only seems to lack a Stephen Spielberg cinematic
panorama to illustrate its broad vistas. The digital sound on this
live recording of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, with Neeme
Järvi 2202 conducting, is stunning.
Järvi leads the same forces in equally fine performance of Stenhammar’s
Serenade (BIS 310), justifiably regarded as his finest composition
and as one of the masterpieces of Swedish music. It is a big, appealing
work, whose title—like Brahms’ Serenade—belies the substance and
breath ofthe music. The musical language remains somewhere between
Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. If the idiom may not be highly original, the
melodic ideas are nonetheless of such high caliber that one never tires
2203 of hearing this gorgeous piece.
Stenhammar was also an active chamber musician, and he composed
six string quartets, all of which have appeared on Caprice CDs, and
they are also being recorded in a new traversal by the BIS label with
the eponymous Stenhammar Quartet. The place to start would be with
the last two fully mature works, nos. 5 and 6 on Caprice 21339, played
respectively by the Fresk Quartet and the Copenhagen String Quartet. Written in 1910 and 1916, both quartets are firmly anchored in 19th
century Romanticism, but avoid any touch of fin de siècle neuroticism.
Stenhammar keeps their textures, light and the melodies flowing. These
expressive and passionate works repay repeated listening because they
preserve a classical sense of scale within which their many remarkable
beauties never seem to pale. His six quartets belong among the very
best ofhis or any period. Anyone interested in first-rate chamber music
2204 has much to gain here.
Though a full-blown late-romantic, Stenhammar never overloaded
his works. They do not point beyond themselves, as do Arnold Schonberg’s
late-romantic pieces, which strained tonality to the breaking
point. Stenhammar, then, is not really a transitional figure. He may
even appear a bit anachronistic for the early 20th century. He is simply
an extremely good and very healthy example ofwhat romanticism was
2205 capable of before it became sick.
<> Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867–1942) is a Swedish composer, renown
principally for his songs, who valiantly but with mixed critical success
wrote a number of symphonies as well. The CPO label has released the
complete five symphonies, plus the Violin Concerto and a selection
of suites, genre pieces, romances and a suite of orchestrations from
his famous piano cycle Frösöblomster (CPO 777 160). They are also
available on CPO singles. What are probably his two best symphonies,
nos. 2 (Journey on Southerly Winds), on CPO 999 564, and 3 (Lap<>
land), on CPO 999 632), each generously accompanied by other orchestral
works, performed by the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra,
under Michail Jurowski, make for a good place to start. I fell in love
with the Second Symphony (1910) years ago and remember playing
an imported EMI record of it for the wife of a Viennese composer,
who remarked afterward, ‘‘It is like a string of musical pearls.’’ One
gorgeous melody flows into another in this beguiling dream-fantasy.
The Third Symphony (1915) is equally enchanting and made his reputation
as a symphonist. Peterson-Berger was a romantic nationalist
and great admirer ofWagner. He was his own man, however, and his
works are spared the kind of Germanic heaviness that dragged down so many overwrought works of this period. Although StigWesterberg
and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra gave a tauter performance
of Symphony no. 2 on my EMI record from the 1970s, I am overjoyed
at having these two CDs and recommend them to those who can sit
back and allow themselves to be overtaken by rampant beauty. If you
trust me, get the entire five-CD set, which 2206 comes at a budget price.
The CPO label also released a budget box (CPO 999748) of three
CDs containing the four symphonies and other orchestral works of another
Swedish composer, Ture Rangström (1884–1947), again, with
the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, under Michail Jurowski. As a
youth, Rangström fell under the spell of Peterson-Berger’s works and
became an ardent advocate of romantic national music. His version of
this stylistic vein, however, was to develop differently. If you are in the
mood for musical melodrama, summer storms or emotional tumult,
here is a composer who pulls out all the stops. His contemporaries’
<> deliciously wicked pun on his name, Sturm-und-Drangström, pretty
much tells the story. At times, his works sound like a wild amalgam of
John Williams’ StarWars and Dracula sound tracks and film music from
movies in which Gene Tierney plays a bad girl. It is great wild fun
and sometimes more than that. Over the top it may be, but the music
contains stretches of mesmerizing beauty. I particularly recommend
2207 the Third and Fourth Symphonies. The performances are exemplary.
Only three years Rangström’s junior, Kurt Atterberg(1887–1974) lived
long into the 20th century and never abandoned his conservative idiom.
Defiantly, he wrote a Romantic Symphony (no. 7) as late as 1942.
All nine of his symphonies are available on five CDs in another economical
CPO box set (CPO 777 118). A separate CPO issue (999
639) from the set, offering Symphonies nos. 1 and 4, gives the early
measure ofAtterberg’s symphonic prowess. Symphony no. 1 may be a
conservative romantic work, but it has thematic allure and a vivid liveliness, and is leavened by enharmonic modulations occasionally reminiscent
of Franz Schmidt’s works. Atterberg approaches form in a very
free and less than rigorously classical way. He tends naturally to the
rhapsodic, the highly lyrical, the romantically expansive. He is really a
nature portraitist, rather than a classical symphonist. In fact, the subtitle
of the Third Symphony is Vastkustbilder (West Coast Pictures),
and is accompanied not only by headings (Sun Haze, Storm, and Summer
Night), but also by short poetical landscape descriptions. Its subject
matter is principally the sea, and it has been called a Swedish La
Mer. No matter how loose Atterberg’s musical structure is, he delivers
some ravishing, magical moments and utterly beguiling impressionistic
and atmospheric effects, especially in the two middle movements. He
also loves enormous crescendos, which he knows how to build effectively.
Witness the stunning end to the Third Symphony. The Fourth
is a more classical work, beautifully transparent in its orchestration,
with gorgeous melodies. Both are given excellent performances by the
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ari Rasilainen.
Another separate CPO release (999 640) offers Symphonies nos. 3 and
6, again with Rasilainen at the helm, but this time with the Hannover
Radio Symphony Orchestra. The performances are stunning and the
music is ravishing. You may confidently start your exploration of his
2208 music with this CD.
Were all Atterberg’s works on this sublime level, he would be
renowned as one of the very finest musical poets. His Romantic Symphony
(no. 7) and his Symphony no. 8, released on Sterling, with performances
by the Malmo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the very
busy Michail Jurowski, indicate otherwise. Unfortunately, these two
mildly ingratiating works show what seems to be a diminution in Atterberg’s
inspiration. They have a dated charm but fail to vindicate the
aesthetic stance Atterberg was trying to preserve or perpetuate. Another
Sterling release, containing the much earlier Piano Concerto,
op. 37, and Violin Concerto, op. 7, prove perhaps that Atterberg’s inspiration
was a bit uneven throughout. A diehard lover of Romanticism
might luxuriate in these works, but they do not really achieve
distinction. Much better is Atterberg’s Cello Concerto, op. 21, available
from Koch Schwann, with cellistWerner Thomas-Mifune and the
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Karl Anton Rickenbacher.
This is a substantial work of haunting beauty that shows what Atterberg was really capable of. It is coupled by the fine Cello Sonata, op. 27. Another first-rate work is the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, which is one of the most attractive examples of the genre. It accompanies the Third Symphony on a Caprice CD (21364), performed by
the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, under Gerard Oskamp, with
Albert Linder on horn.