Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Op. 1 (1893)

By James Parakilas, Bates College

Written for the concert Berlin 1894: A Concert Recreated performed on Dec 11, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

We can easily imagine what it meant to Wilhelm Stenhammar to play his Piano Concerto, Op. 1, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Richard Strauss on December 10, 1894. Stenhammar (1871-1927) was twenty-three, had completed the work just the year before, and had played the solo part already in performances in Stockholm and Copenhagen. But Berlin was different. Berlin was at the center of the musical universe, and Strauss, himself only thirty, embodied the boldest new directions in music. Swedish composers, no matter what their age, were not accustomed to opportunities like this to display their work.

It is true that Edward Grieg (1843-1907), then at the height of his international fame, had already made the rest of Europe take notice of Nordic music. But since his early Piano Concerto, Grieg had avoided the prestigious orchestral genres. Stenhammar would more naturally have compared himself to composers of his own generation who were beginning to produce the first major body of Nordic symphonies and concertos to have an impact on the international repertory: the Norwegian Christian (Rustles of Spring) Sinding (b. 1856), whose Piano Concerto had been performed in Berlin in 1889; the Dane Carl Nielsen (b. 1865); and the Finn, Jean Sibelius (also b. 1865).

Perhaps we can also imagine how the Berlin Philharmonic audience might have anticipated this first work of a young Swedish composer. Would it show the marks of a promising talent? Would this composer already have found a distinctive voice? Would it be a distinctively Swedish voice? What trends or models of piano concertos would Stenhammar follow? What kind of advocate would he be, as soloist, for his own work?

Except for the last, these are the same questions we can bring to this performance of the work a hundred years later. We can ask them with some of the same openness as that Berlin audience did, because after a number of performances in its first years, this Concerto, like all of Stenhammar’s music, virtually disappeared from the international repertory. In fact, what was believed to be the only orchestral score of the work was destroyed in World War II, and a new orchestration was created by the eminent Swedish composer, Kurt Atterberg in 1946, before another copy of the original orchestration was discovered by Prof. Allan Ho of Southern Illinois University in 1990. Now, though the Concerto can be heard on three different recordings, it is in a sense almost as new to concert-goers as it was a hundred years ago. In fact, hearing such an unfamiliar work from a century ago allows us to imagine the anticipation that audiences then would have felt for all new works – including the Strauss tone poems or Rachmaninoff piano concertos of that time – that we can never again hear with such curiosity.

The Concerto leaves no doubt about Stenhammar’s ambition: it is as long as the Brahms Second Piano Concerto (then just thirteen years old) and in the same four-movement form. And while he didn’t get his piano writing from the school of razzle-dazzle, Stenhammar does require a heroic span of nearly continuous playing from his pianist.

He sets the tone of the first movement (and much of its thematic agenda) in the opening two chords from the orchestra – a minor chord falling gloomily by the interval of a fourth to another minor chord – very much like the pair of chords that opens Brahms’ Tragic Overture. The piano answers with a cadenza of double octaves, and the Concerto is underway with a dialogue between these two elements -orchestra and piano – instead of the traditional orchestral ritornello. After this introduction, the piano plays the main theme, a quiet, songful melody that begins with the same pair of chords that opened the movement. The exposition of the movement has two other themes: an urgent theme, first played by the piano, starting with a rising scale, and a tranquil, hymn-like theme, that in its first hearing is one of the longest stretches for solo piano in the whole Concerto. The development of these themes and the thunderous recapitulation of the main theme, hold fewer surprises than the serene apotheosis of the rising-scale theme (coming out of order, after the hymn theme), followed by the return of the introduction–a return that prevents what promised to be a major-mode resolution and restores the bleak mood of the opening.

Having established his credentials as a suffering Byronic artist in this movement, Stenhammar indulges in more of the pleasures of instrumental color, rhythm, and thematic play in the later movements. The second movement, for instance, is like a scherzo of Schumann in its playful conception, but with the more glittering sonorities of the 1890s–especially right at the end, when the action is done and the glitter keeps on glittering.

The slow movement (Andante) combines song with evocations of nature. It is full of songful themes, of which the first, begun with a horn solo, becomes the longest orchestral passage in the concerto. At its later appearances this theme continues to belong to the orchestra, though the piano wraps it in flowing accompaniments. The piano enters with improvisatory musings, in the course of which the orchestra slips back in with its opening melody. At the end, piano and orchestra trade roles, the orchestra taking over the piano’s twittering, while the piano faintly echoes the opening song.

The final movement (Allegro commodo) has the boldest theme of the Concerto, starting with what sounds like a chromatic distortion of the falling-fourth figure at the opening of the concerto and continuing with a series of further chromatic dissonances. As the theme goes, so goes the movement, full of chromaticism of a playful sort. But when the conclusion seems to be near, the composer, in a move he could have learned from the Grieg Piano Concerto, turns off this music, and we hear something altogether different, sounding as if in our memory. This soft, sustained theme, played by the piano in spacious chords, is made from the same motive as Stenhammar’s song “Lutad mot gärdet,” according to the Swedish scholar, Bo Waliner. The memory seems to be banished when the main theme returns in its craziest version yet, but in fact the ending is more like a battle of conscience, which the remembered theme quietly wins.