September 12, 2019
(+++) LANGUISHING IN OBSCURITY
Bengt Wilhelm Hallberg: Symphony in F; Concert Overture No. 2; Joseph Dente: Symphony in D minor. Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Per Engström (Hallberg); Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ola Karlsson (Dente). Sterling. $18.99.
The Heritage of Wilhelm Stenhammar. Collector’s Classics. $18.99 (4 CDs).
The words “Sweden” and “symphony” are not often paired by listeners, although the four excellent examples by Franz Berwald (1796-1868) have received some well-deserved attention in recent years. There are many reasons for the neglect of Swedish symphonists, not the least of which is that only one city, Stockholm, was sufficiently cosmopolitan in the 19th century to offer important concerts; and Sweden had only one professional orchestra, the Royal Court Orchestra – in Stockholm, of course. This did not stop composers from symphonic writing altogether, but it meant that their efforts were few and far between, since in the days before recordings, there was little value to creating music that would not be performed for an audience. Thus, Swedish composers after Berwald’s time, even if they studied with Berwald himself, might well end up trying the symphonic form only once – and that is what happened with both Bengt Wilhelm Hallberg (1824-1883) and Joseph Dente (1838-1905). Performances of these composers’ symphonies remain excruciatingly rare: a new Sterling disc had to reach all the way back to 1992 for the Dente symphony and even further, to 1984, for Hallberg’s. But for those interested in some of the less-known byways of Romantic music, the CD is certainly worthwhile, both for what it illuminates about Swedish Romantic composers and for some of the music in its own right. In the case of Hallberg, his Concert Overture No. 2 (also recorded in 1984) proves more interesting than his symphony: the overture is tightly constructed and technically skillful, showing the influence of Berwald – with whom Hallberg studied in 1849-50. Hallberg primarily wrote church music, but this overture shows him to have been quite capable in purely instrumental pieces. It sounds like a curtain-raiser for a drama even though it was written as a standalone piece. Hallberg’s symphony is less effective: primarily gentle and lyrical, it features some well-thought-out wind writing but does not generally move much beyond Haydn’s time in structure or approach (although it does in instrumentation). Dente’s symphony, although also derivative, is more successful. Dente did not study with Berwald – a violinist, he studied with several of the best virtuoso players of his time – and his work shows little influence from Berwald but a great deal from Mendelssohn. It is quite a short symphony for its time (1887, nearly two decades after Hallberg’s), but its intensity is very clear. It remains in the minor almost throughout, including at the very end; and in common with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Dente’s work reserves trombones (in Dente’s case, three of them) for the finale. The work exudes seriousness of purpose but not of emotion: its not-too-slow slow movement, Andante, brings respite from more-serious matters without ever delving into any depth of feeling. The symphony is more interesting than impressive, but it is interesting, and shows the value of seeking out works by well-trained if scarcely first-order composers.
In the years after Hallberg’s and Dente’s symphonies, one Swedish composer who took up the form – and became better-known for it than either Hallberg or Dente – was Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), who composed two completed symphonies and a portion of a third. But Stenhammar was not particularly satisfied with his work in symphonic form: he withdrew his first symphony (1902-03), which he decided was too imitative of the works of Wagner and (particularly) Bruckner. His second symphony (1911-15), much more heavily influenced by the works of Sibelius (especially that composer’s Symphony No. 2), is the one symphonic work for which Stenhammar remains well-known. Stenhammar was also a first-rate pianist and a conductor, and remains important in those roles – more so than as a symphonist. He is not, however, particularly familiar to audiences outside Sweden – and even listeners who do know him and his music will have to be dedicated aficionados if they are to appreciate a four-CD set on the Collector’s Classics label with the title The Heritage of Wilhelm Stenhammar. In 1905, Stenhammar recorded five piano rolls for Welte-Mignon, so some of his pianism is preserved; but none of his conducting. However, performances led by his successor, Tor Mann, and by Mann’s successor, Sixten Eckerberg, were recorded, and they form the basis of this release. There is quite a bit of Stenhammar’s Second here: the first disc consists entirely of Mann’s rehearsals of the first, second and fourth movement – at quite some length in the case of the first movement and finale. The second disc is an actual Mann performance of the first movement of the symphony, with additional Stenhammar music filling out the CD. The third movement features Symphony No. 2 again, this time led by Eckerberg, together with other Stenhammar works. Mann, a cellist, played Stenhammar’s music under the composer’s baton, so there is certainly authenticity to what he offers, but Eckerberg’s pacing of the first movement of Symphony No. 2 is more satisfactory, lasting just over 12 movements vs. 16 for Mann. How Stenhammar himself handled the movement is, of course, unknown. The most salient characteristic of this release for the majority of listeners is that it truly is a historical document: the Mann recordings were made between 1938 and 1959, and the Eckerberg ones date to 1945-48 and originally appeared on 78-rpm discs. Although the remastering of the material is certainly adequate for purposes of historical remembrance, nothing on these discs will be of much interest to listeners who have only mild familiarity with Stenhammar (as symphonist, composer for piano, or anything else). This release offers very early recordings of Stenhammar’s music for those enthusiasts who know him and his compositions so well that they want to listen to readings by some of the people who knew Stenhammar personally or were directly influenced by him. That is a small and highly rarefied group – even more so outside Sweden than in it. For almost everyone outside that inner circle, Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 and some of his other works heard here – such as his Serenade, Op. 31 – are far better served in more-recent performances, which make a better case for Stenhammar as a composer whose works are worth at least an occasional hearing outside his homeland.