Sunday, November 16, 2008

A good word for Stenhammar

November 13, 2008

Here’s an interesting piece from On an Overgrown Path, written last year to mark the 80th anniversary of the death of Wilhelm Stenhammar, the Swedish late Romantic who always comes to mind as the one composer of all the under appreciated writers who really deserves wider recognition over here.

There’s nothing about Stenhammar’s style that is inconsistent with the music most of today’s concertgoers most like to hear: It’s big, bold, expressive, full of lovely melody and beautiful colors. I’m listening right now to Love Derwinger’s 1992 recording of Stenhammar’s Op. 1, a huge piano concerto in B-flat minor that is much worthier than some of the other forgotten concerti that get unearthed and recorded these days. Earlier this week, I heard the McDowell Second Concerto, for instance, and it’s attention-getting, but not very interesting.
Stenhammar’s concerto derives from the same Brahms wing of Romantic concerto writing, but his melodies have more character and his sound-world has more personality. And this piece was written when the composer was barely out of his teens. Also on this disc, which features Sweden’s Malmo Symphony under Paavo Jarvi, violinist Ulf Wallin plays the Two Sentimental Romances, Op. 28. These are conservative but gorgeous works, and there’s no reason to keep preferring the Beethoven or Tchaikovsky violin morsels as an added concert attraction to Stenhammar instead.
One of the reasons Stenhammar isn’t better known to the world at large is probably that he ran into a terrible creative block during the last 10 years of his somewhat abbreviated life (born in 1871, he died at 56 in 1927). He seems to have reached a creative crossroads in which he was unsure what direction he wished to go, and he couldn’t get things done the way he used to.
But my research on that point is anything but thorough, and someone out there who knows more of Stenhammar’s story might be able to shed more light on him. In the meantime, we should definitely hear more Stenhammar in the concert halls, and perhaps a future day might make him more of a staple. At the very least, it would be nice to run into one of the symphonies, some the songs (Anne Sofie von Otter has recorded several), or even one of the string quartets every now and again.
This is attractive, well-written music that would have no difficulty reaching today’s concertgoers.

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