Monday, June 18, 2018

Why did Stenhammar "withdraw" his F-Major Symphony #1? It is literally Brahms plus Bruckner-Wagner, combined in one style



Swedish composer-piano Wilhelm Stenhammar would turn his back on his own Symphony #1 in F Major (1903), written at the age of 32.  He called it “idealized Bruckner” but later in life as he sought a more personalized idiom (which I have said reminds me of Amy Beach) he came to think of this as a “trivial piece” for all its 55 minutes.  Wikipedia lists it as “withdrawn”.  I guess Stenhammar did perceive his entire compositional output as one continuous process piece gradually getting “less bad”.  I don’t think Stenhammar wanted to give up on German romanticism. He wanted to fuse it into an indivisible whole. (Note: he composed his first piano sonata when he was nine years old.)

Yet, I have a Records International CD somewhere with the Gothenberg Sympnony under Jarvi – and I see I discussed it a little on Oct 7, 2007 here.

The YouTube version seems to be a different performance, with some elaborations of the codas.


Does this sound more like Brahms than Bruckner?  Most of the time it does.  It frankly reminds me of the Brahms Third, in the same key – F Major is the most pastoral of keys. But the orchestration uses the horns and other brass in a manner similar to Bruckner and Wagner, sometimes even Mahler, which produces an odd effect when combined with Brahms-like syncopated triple time a lot. The first movement starts out oh so gently, finally reaching a second subject, but manages to work itself up for a triumphant coda.  The second movement in A Minor will remind you of the Allegretto of the Beethoven Seventh at first, and then the A Minor slow movement of the Schubert Great (the same rhythmic figures), before it quotes a 3-note rising theme that does come from Bruckner (forget which symphony) in the horns.  The gentleness continues in the scherzo in B-flat.

The finale seems to return to the first movement material, but with faster tempi and fugal treatment, yet sometimes sounding Schubertian. (That’s all right; a lot of the completed finale of the Bruckner Ninth has Schubert-“Great” passagework.) The modulations to remote keys get daring.  After the full sonata form, the finale seems to be dying to a quiet coda, like the Brahms third – but then the sun rises again, with the water-music theme from Wagner’s Das Rheingold (often in the background) taking over as the music grows for one last shout, as the Universe is reborn.
  
I wanted to hear this today.  I’ll look at my own “process piece” and try to compose the final transitions very soon before trying to package it into performable shape.  That’s a Sonata #3, started at the end of 1961, and now definitely “less bad”.  It, too, has the grandest of all codas at the end (in C).

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Stenhammar's Piano Concerto #2: An obscure work sounds so familiar




Here’s another piano concerto masterpiece (no “Cakeshop”) that everyone misses.  Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar started out as the Swedish Bruckner (in the Symphony #1) and became more like the Swedish Brahms and sometimes Sibelius.

The Piano Concerto #2 in D Minor, Op. 23, is quite a remarkable work.  I see that I mentioned it at the end of a review of #1 on May 9, 2012; but it really deserves a detailed look.  It bears a certain resemblance to the Piano Concerto of Amy Beach.


Above, Greta Ericksson, piano, plays with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra with Evgeny Svetlanov.

The work comprises four movements without pause, although there is quite a lot of structure within each.

The work begins modestly in triple time, with a descending figure of half-steps in the accompanying orchestra that is common to this compose. The orchestra suddenly modulates to C# minor to what sounds like a main theme, but the rest of the movement has a compressed sonata form as it tends to explore the introductory motive more.  But violence returns to close out the movement (as in the Beach, which, by comparison, has a very expanded first movement). The scherzo starts with a tarantella but has an extensive middle section with a waltz theme that will sound familiar.

The 4/4 Adagio will remind the listener of late Chopin with harmonic schemes out of Op 61 – and the theme will sound familiar (Hollywood loves to take themes from obscure classical works)  The orchestra will develop another motive that resembles a similar descending figure in the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #3.  The D Major Finale is a concluding romp in compound 9/8 time, with a dance theme (a bizarre kind of Polonaise-Fantasy) that will sound suspiciously familiar (Hollywood, again). 
  
The work has many sudden key modulations, especially between D Minor and C# Minor, and sometimes uses some ideas that sound like they come from the Chopin Op. 61.