Swedish Romanticism

Niklas Sivelöv/Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Mario Vengazo
Stenhammar: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) has been called "the finest Swedish composer after Berwald" by none other than Robert Layton. The PR materials and booklet notes for this release freely admit the heavy influence of Brahms on Stenhammar's Piano Concerto No. 1 (1893), but of course that just makes me like it more. A pianist himself, Stenhammar made his debut in 1892 with Brahms's First, and Stenhammar's own First is definitely influenced, right down to its four-movement structure, but it's also more extroverted and showier, less profound and densely woven (though just as big and thick). And not as great, alas, but that would be surprising; it is an extremely good work for lovers of big, Romantic symphonic works, especially its lovely, soaring Andante.

We are told that Stenhammar "found his personal voice" in the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1908); that voice sounds to me like the cyclic structure of Liszt's Piano Sonata and turn-of-the-century French composers enamored of Franck married to the filigreed melodic sense of Rachmaninoff's Fourth. That's less immediately appealing than the Piano Concerto No. 1, but it is more original and mature, and more concise as well. Both concertos deserve to be heard much more often.

There is some recorded competition in these works, but the only single CD competition containing both concertos is Volume 49 in Hyperion's series The Romantic Piano Concerto. As fine as that is, Naxos beats it in the First Concerto because the Malmö Symphony Orchestra has more heft than the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra musters under Andrew Manze, an impression added to by the recording perspective. Furthermore, the heft just mentioned, combined with a more taut performance, endows the First with greater gravitas.

The forces are more equal in the Second: pianist Seta Tanyel and the Helsingborgers' sparkling performance and greater breadth with no loss of tension make for a less dour and more compelling experience in its first movement; after that, it's a toss-up because both are fine. Neither comes near the Romantic juiciness of pianist Cristina Ortiz and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi in the Second, however; I wish that combination had also recorded the First. Given its budget price and better sonics, if you're interested in Romantic piano repertoire, it's well worth taking a chance on this new release just on the basis of Sivelöv's fine performance of the First, and his straightforward rendition of the Second has merit. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer whose song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo keeps growing in length.


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