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Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871-1927)
String Quartets - Volume 1
String Quartet No.3 in F major, Op.18 (1897-1900) [32:13]
String Quartet No.4 in A minor, Op.25 (1904-09) [33:15]
Elegy and Intermezzo from the incidental music to Lodolezzi sjunger, Op.39 (1919) [7:27]
Stenhammar Quartet
ec. April and October 2011 (No.4), and June 2012 (No.3 and Lodolezzi sjunger) Petrus Kyrkan, Stocksund, Sweden
BIS SACD-1659 [73:47]

This is the first SACD from BIS in a projected complete survey of Stenhammar’s six string quartets; a seventh, in F minor and composed in 1897, was withdrawn. He had written an extensive amount of music in that year, which is when he began work on the Third Quartet, but was soon to suffer a crisis and depression after the premiere of his opera Tirfing which, whilst a critical success, was not a work with which Stenhammar was happy. The artistic malaise that assailed him was not to be lifted until several years later, and in 1900 he resumed work on the quartet.
It’s remarkable how much Stenhammar looked to Beethoven for inspiration in this and the companion Fourth Quartet. The Third shares an opus number with the first series of Beethoven’s own quartets, but it’s to the middle - the Razumovsky set and in particular to Op.59 No.1 - and to the Op.135 quartet that Stenhammar looked in this work. What he sought is perhaps less easy to define. Motifs are deliberately recalled and refashioned, the shard-like and rhythmic impulses that drove Beethoven’s quartets are immortalised in Stenhammar. At times though, he recalls Brahms too, so that there is no sense of pastiche, more of an inheritance being both honoured and transformed in the light of its new context. The context is one of flowing lyricism that admits fragmentary development, that almost quotes - embodies, enshrines, codifies, call it what you will - Beethoven’s elemental impulse. Yet not everything is steeped in a Beethovenian aura. The moto perpetuo scherzo has great vitality and a personal quality and the slow movement is a theme and variations of warmly textured and technically accomplished writing.
Dedicated to Sibelius, the Fourth Quartet was begun in 1904 and completed five years later. Its long germination was as a result of both changing compositional direction and a change in location - he travelled to Florence - and he was also performing widely. The clear references to Beethoven’s Op.132 Quartet are as striking as the allusions in the preceding quartet. Overall however this quartet offers a richer palette of influences than Op.18; the subtle and often unexpected modulations are accompanied by hints of folk dance but these are so seamlessly interwoven that they could easily escape notice. The music flows sonorously and organically, fluidly argued. An expressive slow movement - complete with mordant suspensions - is riven by a vital B section, full of contrast and colour. Once again, Stenhammar proves a master of scherzo vitality. That he vests so much time with theme and variations in his quartets is another quality in his favour. This one, that ends the Fourth, is full of change and colour, and also a strangely quixotic, almost quizzical quality too. One feels as if the composer considered the composition almost provisional. Certainly there is little element of emphatic assertion.
The later Elegy and Intermezzo come from incidental music for the stage play Lodolezzi sjunger and were written in 1919. They come from a later period in the composer’s development, therefore, but they contain a full complement of immediacy and characterisation. The Elegy is genuinely melancholic and it contrasts with the extrovert and warmly-textured Intermezzo.
With beautifully rich recorded sound, this volume makes a very strong case for the two quartets and the eponymous Stenhammar Quartet plays with rapt devotion and splendid tone.
Jonathan Woolf