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Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871-1927)
Suite from Romeo och Julia, Op 45 (1922, arr. Hilding Rosenberg, 1944) [17:20]
Reverenza (1911-13) [5:58]
(Original second movement of Serenade, Op 31)
Two Sentimental Romances for violin and orchestra, Op 28 (1910) [13:36]
Sången (The Song), symphonic cantata, Op 44 (1921) [29:15]
Sara Trobäck (violin)
Charlotta Larsson (soprano); Martina Dike (alto); Lars Cleveman (tenor); Fredrik Zetterström (baritone)
Children’s Choir of Norrköpings Musikklasser
Gothenburg Symphony Choir & Vocal Ensemble
Gothenburg Symphony/Neeme Järvi
rec. 2018, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden. DSD
Text & English translation included
BIS BIS-2359 SACD [67:08]

A small note in the booklet accompanying this disc tells us that Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony made their first recording for BIS as long ago as 1982. That was an LP – issued on CD in 1986 – of Stenhammar’s First Symphony. That repertoire choice was appropriate since Wilhelm Stenhammar became the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in 1907, just two years after the ensemble was founded, staying in post until 1922. Down the years Järvi and the orchestra have recorded a good number of major Stenhammar works but the symphonic cantata, Sången has not been among them – until now.

Sången was the composer’s last major work. It was written at the request of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music to mark that institution’s 150th anniversary. At Stenhammar’s insistence, the text was specially written for him by his fellow composer, Ture Rangström (1884-1947). The libretto – and therefore the cantata – falls into two parts. As Signe Rotter-Broman points out in the useful booklet essay, Part I depicts the awakening of Sången, a mystical figure whose name can be interpreted as meaning ‘song’ or ‘singing’. In Part II, which is introduced by a noble orchestral interlude, the words tell of a ‘hallowed feast’ in a temple which has been built in Sången’s honour. Stenhammar set this text for large forces, including SATB soloists, an adult choir, a children’s choir and a substantial orchestra. I know the work through a 1982 recording by Swedish forces – one of the soloists is Anne Sophie von Otter – conducted by Herbert Blomstedt (Caprice CAP 21358). I bought that disc many years ago, soon after getting the Stenhammar ‘bug’ when I acquired Stig Westerberg’s still unsurpassed recording of the Second Symphony.

The first thing that made me sit up was that Neeme Järvi shaves some six minutes off Blomstedt’s overall timing for the work. Blomstedt takes 35:08 compared with Järvi’s 29:15. Now, I don’t have access to a score so I can’t tell if one conductor is more respectful than his colleague of tempo markings at any point in the score. There’s certainly more urgency on Järvi’s part at certain points – I’m thinking of the very opening of Part I and the allegro stretches of Part II – and Blomstedt is even more expansive than Järvi in his treatment of the Interlude at the start of Part II. However, despite the significant difference between their respective timings, both conductors convince me completely. Where Järvi enjoys a distinct advantage, though, is in BIS’s recorded sound. The BIS Hybrid SACD offers both a conventional stereo option and a 5.0 Surround facility. Not being equipped for the latter, I listened to the SACD layer in stereo and was significantly impressed with the results. The Caprice recording is cut at a lower level but even with a significant volume boost it simply can’t match the impact and presence of the BIS sound. Järvi’s soloists – an excellent team – are nicely but not excessively foregrounded and the choirs are very successfully reported. There’s a wealth of orchestral detail, too – the piano part, for example – and the net result is that BIS give the listener a far superior impression of Stenhammar’s score when compared with the Caprice recording which, it must be remembered, is 36 years old now.

Järvi’s performance is a considerable one. In Part I he often invests the music with great energy but he’s just as successful in the slower, more reflective episodes. The score includes many passages of richly imagined music – and some dramatic sections, too – and all of these come over very well. The last four minutes or so of Part I are pretty ecstatic and there’s all the fervour you could wish for in the Gothenburg performance. Blomstedt also leads an enthusiastic close to Part I but his performers are rather more distantly recorded and, as I’ve indicated, the Caprice recording isn’t as potent as the BIS sound.

Part II opens with quite an extended orchestral interlude. At first the Gothenburg strings really impress with the richness of their collective timbre. A little later (at 2:08) the brass enter majestically and the BIS recording is suitably sonorous. Blomstedt offers a dedicated reading too, and he’s even more spacious than Järvi – the point where the voices enter occurs at 6:08 in his recording; Järvi gets there at 4:29 but never sounds rushed. Once the singers have joined in Part II proper begins. In the BIS notes we read that the music in Part II often puts the listener in mind of Handelian oratorio. I get that, but the Caprice annotator, Bo Wallner, also cites Beethoven, albeit he thinks Handel is the more pronounced exemplar. To me, there are distinct echoes of at least the spirit of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth and, in truth, I hear more of a Beethoven echo than a Handelian one. Järvi leads a jubilant account of this music and also handles very well the slower, noble episode from about 7:00 to 9:28 at which point the celebratory music resumes. Despite all this jubilation, Stenhammar chooses not to end with all guns blazing; rather, in the last couple of minutes he winds everything down and achieves a satisfyingly calm conclusion. The principal tempo marking for the choral section of Part II – in other words, after the Interlude – is Allegro ma non tanto. I suspect that Järvi has more in mind the Allegro aspect of that injunction while Blomstedt takes more note of the ma non tanto qualification, because his core tempo is steadier than Järvi’s. For myself, I tend to prefer the Järvi approach. I shan’t be discarding my copy of the Blomstedt recording but I think Järvi now becomes a first choice for this work.

Järvi’s other items are smaller in scale. Sara Trobäck, the leader of the Gothenburg Symphony since 2002, makes a very nice job of the Two Sentimental Romances. I especially appreciated her poetic approach to the first Romance where her pure, singing tone is a source of great pleasure. The Reverenza movement was excised by Stenhammar from his Serenade, Op 31 when he revised that score in 1919. I’m glad the music survived, though, because it’s an interesting little piece to hear on its own from time to time.

I knew those two works already but the orchestral suite from Stenhammar’s incidental music to the play Romeo och Julia was new to me. It’s the last work to which he gave an opus number. What we have here is a suite compiled in 1944 by Hilding Rosenberg. Don’t expect anything comparable to, say, Prokofiev’s take on Romeo and Juliet. We read in the notes that the production of Shakespeare’s play for which Stenhammar wrote his music was inspired by the Neo-Renaissance and featured “an understated pared-down stage design”. So far as I can tell simply by listening, the very light scoring features just strings and harp with very important parts for a flute and an oboe. There are five movements. The longest is the opening Pastorale. This is a delectable piece which features the two woodwind instruments prominently. At times they are called upon to be poetic, at other times agile. The flautist is Anders Jonhäll and the oboist is Mårten Larsson: both of them are marvellous. There follows a light-footed Corrente and a very pleasing Gavotte movement, which begins with an extended passage for the strings playing pizzicato. The fourth movement, Petters pipa (Peter’s pipe) consists of an extended oboe solo. Mårten Larsson plays it with great artistry and flair. The suite concludes with a graceful Sarabanda. This suite is an absolute charmer and I enjoyed it very much.

BIS have done great service over the years to the music of Wilhelm Stenhammar and this superb disc continues that proud tradition. The singing and playing are out of the top drawer throughout and Neeme Järvi clearly has the measure of the music, all of which he conducts with great empathy. As for the engineering, it’s a choice example of BIS sound. All devotees of Stenhammar’s music should hear this, not least for the market-leading account of Sången.

John Quinn


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