Stenhammar: Symphony No 2, Music to 'Ett dromspel' (SACD)

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Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg

Considered to be one of the great Nordic symphonies of its time, Wilhelm Stenhammar's Symphony No. 2 in G minor was a long time in the making. Stenhammar the conductor and pianist was a leading figure in the musical life of Sweden and Scandinavia, but in his role as composer he struggled with self-doubt, feeling that his knowledge of musical theory was insufficient. In 1910 he decided to address this perceived shortcoming, and began an intensive study of counterpoint which included setting himself several thousand assignments over the following decade. At the same time, between 1911 and 1915, Stenhammar composed his G minor symphony, and against this background it is hardly surprising that it displays his preoccupation with counterpoint, its final movement a grandiose double fugue.

If the symphony is one of Stenhammar’s most celebrated works, his music for Strindberg’s A Dream Play is one of the least-known. It was composed for a production of Strindberg’s existential drama in 1916, a year after the completion of the Symphony. Rarely performed after that, the music was arranged into a concert version in 1970 by Hilding Rosenberg. Christian Lindberg and the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra have previously recorded Stenhammar’s Serenade to critical acclaim: the disc was named Disc of the Week on Danish Radio, received a recommendation on German website Klassik-Heuteand was selected Recording of the Month on MusicWeb-International.

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Stenhammar Symphony No.2 in G minor, Op.34

1) I. Allegro energico
2) II. Andante
3) III. Scherzo. Allegro, ma non troppo presto
4) IV. Finale. Sostenuto — Allegro vivace alla breve
5) Musik till August Strindbergs ”Ett drömspel” Music for ‘A Dream Play’ by August Strindberg Concert version by Hilding Rosenberg

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A century-old masterpiece you need to hear.



If there was even a symphony that deserved to be in the Top Ten, it is this century-old masterpiece: Symphony No. 2, Op. 34, by Wilhelm Stenhammar(1871-1927). The Swedish composer was a self-taught pianist who turned to conducting, directing the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in the early years of the 20th Century. His repertoire included works by Mahler, Nielsen and his friend Sibelius (who dedicated his own Sixth Symphonyto Stenhammar). All those influences can be felt in this 46-minute, four-movement work, but the composer who comes most to mind in terms of joyous melody and woodwind-tinged textures is Antonin Dvořák. If you love Dvořák (and few music lovers don't!) you owe it to yourself to hear Stenhammar's Second. The 'Scherzo' in waltz time is sheer delight, and in contrast to some other late-Romantic symphonies, the long finale hangs together due to the composer's imaginative scoring and deft use of counterpoint.

Of course, the symphony is not completely unknown; there have been several recordings over the years. The first that I got to know, which is still available as a CD import on the Swedish Caprice label, was a 1978 recording by the Stockholm Philharmonic under Stig Westerberg. (I remember buying the original LP from George Cooks in his long gone Pitt St store and thinking $8 for one disc was simply outrageous!) Westerberg's performance is dynamic, with the strings driving every movement home. Christian Lindberg's new recording is perhaps more from the head than the heart, but none the worse for that. The pastoral episodes are delicately done, the structure and orchestral colours beautifully laid out, and the melodies as catchy as ever. This disc follows the same conductor's fine 2014 recording of Stenhammar's other orchestral masterpiece, the Serenade Op. 31.

The coupling here is of music Stenhammar composed for a production of Strindberg's Dream Play("Ett Drömspel"), arranged in a concert version by Hilding Rosenberg. Totally forgotten today, this too is an effective score packed with atmosphere and beautifully played by theAntwerp Symphony Orchestra. A great disc.