One of the great Nordic symphonies from Lindberg

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

Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg

Carl Wilhelm Eugen Stenhammar (1871-1927) was one of Sweden’s most important composers at the turn of the 19th century, and one of the finest Swedish pianists of his time. In 1907 he was appointed principal conductor of the newly established Gothenburg Orchestral Society.

The recording currently under review contains Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 in G minor, Op. 34 and Music for ‘A Dream Play’ by August Strindberg. The former is probably the composer’s best known work and the latter a comparative rarity.

Stenhammar began writing his second symphony in 1911 and it only reached completion some four years later. Even so, as he wrote to his friend Sibelius, “The score of my symphony was finished just six days prior to the first performance and I rehearsed the end of the finale for the first and only time on the day of the concert.” Nonetheless the initial performance was received enthusiastically but later performances were met less enthusiastically.

The symphony is written in four movements: a strikingly inventive, lyrical first movement that Lindberg conducts with an appropriate sense of urgency, followed by a suitably solemn Andante. The third movement in this account swings along nicely and the final movement, a grandiose double fugue, that troubled early audiences and critics, is managed brilliantly by the orchestra and conductor and the Tranquillamente section is easily the best among the recordings I have heard. The serenity in amongst the bustle of this extended movement becomes the core of the work so striking is the contrast achieved by these forces.

For comparative purposes I re-listened to recordings by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by the winner of this year’s Gramophone ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’, Neeme Järvi; a 2002 recording, on Caprice, by the Stockholm Philharmonic under Stig Westerberg and finally Hannah Lintu’s performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on a 2013 BBC Music Magazine CD. I have to say that this was not one of maestro Järvi’s finest recordings, Hannah Lintu’s performance is perfectly serviceable but the version by Westerberg, which introduced me to this work, is in every way preferable and remained my first choice, until this new release came along. For me Christian Lindberg gets things just right in a way that I feel would have pleased Stenhammar.

The music for Strindberg’s A Dream Play was composed for the opening of the Lorensberg Theatre in Gothenburg in 1916. Swedish composer Hilding Rosenberg paid respect to this musical continuity when, in 1970, he arranged Stenhammar’s music for concert performance. This is an interesting work that in many ways was ahead of its time in so much as it gives a foretaste of later film music. At times the music seems too incidental for concert performance and feels as if it needs some background action but there are many highlights; for example, the scene in which Indra’s daughter and the Poet are witnesses to a shipwreck in the distance and the subtlety of the academic procession being accompanied by a funeral march¹.

Stenhammar’s music is not widely known. Perhaps this is because, for Stenhammar, the interaction between romance and pastoralism was enough whereas his contemporary Nielsen can now be seen to be moving music forwards. However the music of Stenhammar continues to be pleasing and something worthy of being treasured.

The BIS engineers have delivered good recorded sound, in what I suspect is not an ideal acoustic, and if you are unfamiliar with this composer or this symphony then I urge you to give this fine disc a try. Even if you already have a recording of this work do give this newcomer a listen … and there is the added bonus of the rarity!

iClassical rating: 

¹ The play shows the Lawyer, who is just about to be conferred with a university doctorate when he is suddenly denied this honour.