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Stenhammar: String Quartets, Vol 2 - Stenhammar Quartet

Stenhammar: String Quartets, Vol 2 - Stenhammar Quartet

BIS  BIS-2009 SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber


STENHAMMAR, Wilhelm (1871–1927):
String Quartet No. 5 in C major, Op. 29 (‘Serenade’) (c. 1910)
String Quartet in F minor (1897) (Edition KP 2003:01) world première recording
String Quartet No. 6 in D minor, Op. 35 (1916)

Stenhammar Quartet:
Peter Olofsson & Per Öman, violins
Tony Bauer, viola
Mats Olofsson, cello


After the harmonic and technical audacities of his Fourth String Quartet, Wilhelm Stenhammar evidently felt the need to explore other paths. Thus, in the Fifth Quartet, he makes a new beginning, as indicated by the title ‘Serenade’ that he uses in the autograph score, placing the work in a world of apparent lightheartedness, and even ironic detachment.

Unusually for the composer, the primary focus of the work is on the slow second movement, the Ballata. This is based on a song that Stenhammar had learned as a child: the tragicomical ballad of the knight Finn Komfusenfej, whose wooing of a noble maiden proves highly complicated – and in the end fatal. Wide-ranging both in substance and in musical character, the Ballata is framed by three briefer movements which all in different ways play with elements of the quartets of Viennese Classicism, by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Stenhammar thus distances himself from late-Romantic conventions – a development which is carried even further in his sixth and final work in the genre.

Here ‘Romantic’ melodies and hovering Impressionist sonorities confront each other and are ultimately synthesized to form a single sound world, while Stenhammar’s extensive studies of counterpoint enable him to achieve a truly democratic four-part texture.

On this second disc of the Stenhammar Quartet’s survey, these two late works frame a world première recording, namely that of the Quartet in F minor which Stenhammar completed in 1897, but withdrew after a successful first performance in 1898. While describing the quartet’s middle movements as ‘fresh and joyful’, Stenhammar expressed severe doubts regarding the final movement and for a long time harboured the idea of replacing it, before finally giving up on the work.

The first modern performance of the quartet took place in 2001, and now the Stenhammar Quartet is offering a wider audience the opportunity to judge for itself.

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Review by Mark Novak - June 7, 2014

Stenhammar’s six published string quartets have been recorded albeit only a small handful of times. I was captured by these wonderful quartets by the world premier recordings on the Caprice label which were done in the early 1980’s by three quartets who shared the task: the Fresk Quartet (1 & 5), the Copenhagen Quartet (2 & 6) and the Gotland Quartet (3 & 4). Those original recordings represent good performances in decent analog sound. A more recent recording of Quartets 3 through 6 was issued on the CPO label (on SACD no less!) although there is no indication that that project will be completed. The Oslo performances are also quite good but the recorded sound, while more detailed than the Caprice recordings, was a bit on the cavernous side.

This present release, however, has a big advantage over prior recordings – it includes Stenhammar’s unpublished quartet in F minor which was written after the 2nd quartet and enjoyed a successful premier performance by the Aulin quartet (as his 3rd quartet) but then was subsequently withdrawn by the composer. Correspondence at the time indicated that he was not happy with the finale and intended to write a new one which, unfortunately, never transpired. Hence, it remained unpublished. In the meantime, Stenhammar continued his quartet writing and what perhaps should be known today as his 4th quartet was instead called his 3rd. The F minor is a four movement work lasting about 20 minutes. It has all the earmarks of Stenhammar’s other quartets: good melodies, contrasting rhythms, tight construction and varied moods. This performance by the Stenhammar Quartet is everything one might hope for. These players really know the idiom and play it to the max. As to the finale, I certainly don’t find fault with it. It is a jaunty rondo that caps off the preceding movements in fine fashion. Kudos to BIS and the Stenhammar Quartet for including the F minor quartet in this series.

Quartets 5 and 6 round out this release. As in their earlier recording of Quartets 3 & 4 (Stenhammar: String Quartets, Vol 1 - Stenhammar Quartet) the Stenhammar Quartet bring so much joy and life to this music that they are certainly not bettered in this repertoire by the prior recordings. Quartet 5 is subititled “Serenade” and that is an apt description for this work. This four movement, 20 minute quartet in C major lacks profundity – it is not meant to mirror Beethoven’s late masterpieces by any stretch. Rather it should be appreciated for its lively melodies and expert harmonies. Of all of his quartets, this is probably the least interesting (and I include the unpublished F minor in that comparison). Nevertheless, it is a refreshing and fun listen. Quartet 6 is more serious. The key is D minor and the writing is more chromatic though never dissonant. It is reminiscent of Debussy’s milieu in that the melodies are subsumed by the overall harmonic texture. This is also a 4 movement quartet lasting 24 minutes. The performance is excellent.

The recordings were made in a Swedish church and engineered by Thore Brinkmann at a resolution of 24-bit/96 KHz. It possesses a nearly ideal balance of direct and hall sound without any annoying resonant haze that creeps into the Oslo Quartet recordings. Certainly this is the best technical recording these quartets have received to date. I am very much looking forward to the completion of this project with Quartets 1 and 2. Highly recommended!

Copyright © 2014 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net

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