Stenhammar’s string quartets have never had the enduring popularity that other Scandinavian composers’ quartets have enjoyed; compare those by Sibelius, Nielsen and Grieg,
This new projected cycle by the eponymous Stenhammar Quartet on the Bis label is very welcome indeed. Here we have volume 2; the first volume has already been favourably reviewed
on this site. Yet, these works have never been without their advocates in the recording studio. For several years, I have been familiar with the pioneering Musica Sveciae set on Caprice (CAP 21337-39), where the quartets are shared out between the Fresk, Copenhagen and Gotland Quartets. Recorded in the early eighties, those ADD readings still sound very fine and fresh. There is also an incomplete survey on CPO (Byzantion review impending), played by the Oslo String Quartet.
Largely self-taught, Stenhammar’s career traversed many avenues. As well as being a composer, he was equally distinguished as conductor, pianist and chamber musician. It was in this last role that he fortuitously met Tor Aulin, founder of the Aulin string quartet. This turned out to be a profitable relationship, inspiring Stenhammar to compose seven string quartets between 1894 and 1916.
The String Quartet No. 5 in C major carries the title Serenade
and was begun in the summer of 1909. Many have seen this work as Stenhammar’s tribute to Classical Viennese chamber music. It opens with an energetic first movement, this exuberant mood setting the tone for the whole work. Anchored very much in the tonal idiom, the quartet, to some extent, embraces the new trends in harmonic development. Yet the influences of Haydn and Mozart are never far away, provoking Aulin to comment, on his first encounter with the score, ‘anyone who writes like this must have Haydn’s quartets lying on his bedside table’. The centre of gravity for the work is to be found in the second movement Ballata
, based on a folk-song the composer learnt as a child from his grandfather. Stenhammar works his musical material into a variation-based movement. Rich in substance and character, the subject satirizes the aristocratic courtship ritual, where the knight’s wooing of the daughter ends in disaster. A short scherzo follows, and this leads on to an energetic finale, polyphonic in nature. Could his influence for this movement have been the finale of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59 No. 3, also sharing the C major key?
In contrast, the sixth and final quartet is set in the minor key, and we encounter a much darker mood. An atmosphere of melancholy, sadness and even angst prevails. It is a deeply personal quartet. Maybe it was the composer’s tribute to Tor Aulin who died the year the quartet was started. It was not premiered until 1918 by the Gothenburg Quartet. More highly developed compositionally than its predecessor, the first movement succeeds in suffusing tonal melodies with an impressionistic wash. Once again, the short scherzo is placed second. The lyrical adagio is followed by an intense, disturbed and relentless finale, uncompromising in its determination.
The CD has the added advantage of including the early, youthful F minor Quartet (with no opus number) in what is its world premiere recording. It saw the light of day with the Aulin Quartet in 1898. Stenhammar’s dissatisfaction with the finale, even referring to it as “Quartet No. 3 with the bad finale”, caused its withdrawal after that first performance. His plans to replace this movement were never realized, and it languished in obscurity. There is no denying that in this work, Stenhammar breaks new ground. Its inclusion here is very welcome.
Founded in 2002, the Stenhammar Quartet is one of Scandinavia’s foremost string ensembles. These quartets are central to their repertoire. They also perform the Viennese classics and contemporary music, and have commissioned several works by composers such as Sven-David Sandström
and Bent Sørensen. There is no doubting that the Stenhammars have set the bar high in this repertoire, their musicality informing every bar of the music. They have obviously lived with these works and have a sense of shared purpose. The music feels as if it is freshly composed, and throughout there is potency in the sustained narrative. These are strongly argued performances and one can only look forward with warm anticipation to the next installment. Nevertheless, I would not like to be without my Caprice survey.
Like the majority of CDs from the Bis stable, the sound quality here is first-class. The acoustic of the Petrus Kyrkan confers an aura of translucency around the sound, allowing the string textures to emerge with clarity and definition. Liner-notes by Signe Rotter-Broman not only give a detailed history of the evolution of the works performed, but place Stenhammar in a historical context. Notes are in English, Swedish, German and French.
Anyone with an interest in Nordic chamber music, could do no better than explore these interesting works.