Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 23

By Robert Layton

Written for the concert Scandinavian Romantics, performed on May 10, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In November 1923, while Sibelius was still working on the Seventh Symphony, Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) paid a visit to Helsinki to play his Second Piano Concerto, so it is fitting that they should both appear in this program. (It was on this occasion, incidentally, that Sibelius gave a lunch for his Swedish friend and champion, and asked if he could dedicate the Sixth Symphony to him. His publisher, Hansen, managed to lose the dedicatory page, which is why the score is not appropriately inscribed.) There is no doubt that Stenhammar was the most important Swedish composer after Franz Berwald. His position was not unlike that of Elgar in England, and they both suffered neglect after the Second World War. His father Per Ulrik Stenhammar (1829-75) had himself been a composer, and after studies at home in his native Stockholm, he went to Berlin in the 1890s where he made quite a name for himself particularly as a pianist. He was a noted interpreter of the Brahms D minor Concerto and was only twenty-one when he composed his own First Piano Concerto in B flat minor. It says much for his renown that its first performance took place in Berlin under the baton of Richard Strauss.

Stenhammar’s early music was torn between the influences of Brahms (in the Op. 11 Fantasies for piano) and Wagner (in such pieces as Florez och Blanzeflor, Op.3, and the opera, Tirfing). But in his mature work there is something of Fauré’s gentle classicism and reticence, and Elgar’s melancholy and nobility. Yet his sensibility is distinctly Northern and his personality, though not immediately assertive, becomes more sympathetic, more strongly defined and compelling as one comes to grips with it.

Stenhammar was a remarkable all-round musician: as a conductor he programmed such composers as Debussy, Reger, Strauss, Mahler (the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde) and, of course, Sibelius and Nielsen, all “contemporary music.” He must have been a formidable pianist, too, for apart from his chamber music playing with the Aulin Quartet, he gave demanding recital programs. One included Beethoven’s Op. 109 and Op. 110 sonatas before the interval followed afterwards by the Diabelli variations!

Like most Nordic artists, Ibsen and Sibelius among them, Stenhammar had a lifelong love for Italy. It was while staying in Florence in 1907 that he worked on the Second Piano Concerto, his Fourth Quartet, and was sketching the first ideas for his masterpiece, the Serenade for Orchestra. Such had been the success of the First Concerto during the 1890s that Stenhammar grew tired of playing it on his concert tours and became careless as to its fate. (Both the autograph and the orchestral parts were destroyed during the war, though recently a copy, probably made for the American première, came to light in the Library of Congress.) He played the Second in its stead until his work as a conductor at the Royal Opera, Stockholm, and with the Gothenburg Orchestra claimed more of his energies.

The Second Concerto has four movements and its opening pages have something of the neo-classical lightness of touch of Saint-Saens, as indeed has the effervescent Mendelssohnian scherzo. All four movements from the improvisatory opening through to the finale are played without a break, and have an effortless charm and freshness of melodic invention. It goes without saying, too, that the work is beautifully laid out for both piano and orchestra. Even if the Serenade and the last three string quartets may have a greater poetry and depth, this high-spirited piece offers so much to delight and exhilarate.