Monday, September 18, 2017

Summer's-End-Pieces - Stenhammar's Sensommarnätter

It's good to dust off the old blogs every once and awhile, and in my case it's been too much of awhile - when there are no deadlines there's no angry manager staring at you waiting for the pen to stop moving.  A fine theme has presented itself to me for this week, concerning a fact that many people forget: summer isn't quite over yet.  Rather, it officially changes to Fall this Thursday, and Monday-Wednesday are de jure Summer days, and while some people can't stand the heat of Summer I am always struck with a tinge of melancholy as the rains return...well, not so much melancholy this year considering how our wildfire season went, but a bit, regardless.  As such, I can spend this week talking about a number of pieces based on a great poetic theme, the End of Summer.  I've long wanted to cover this concept, not only because of the blogworthy works that I've found based on it, but also because it's a transitional phase that means different things to different people, emotionally as well as musically.  I'm also happy for this first article because I can finally talk about a Swedish composer on Re-Composing (for my Leaf article on Hilding Rosenberg click here).

While Sweden has been very good at producing musicians of world renown, including conductors (Neeme Jarvi), trumpet players (Hakan Hardenberger) and trombonists (Christian Lindberg), its composers have never enjoyed the same level of fame, or at least "important" status.  It's not that there haven't been a number of great composers to come from the shore of Middle Fennoscandia - far from it, in fact - there's just that little matter of luck that hasn't been on their side.  It's also important to note that public taste only allowed for less than a handful of superstars to come from the Nordic countries in the first place: Mr. Grieg from Norway, Mr. Nielsen and Mr. Ruders from Denmark, and Mr. Sibelius and Mrs. Saariaho from Finland.  None of Sweden's major composers have quite risen above the fame level of Denmark's Niels Gade, a wonderful composer when you get to know him but still afflicted with the pesky syndrome of international obscurity.  With Sweden a few pieces have cracked the Hot Overseas charts:

+ Dag Wirén wrote a lovely Serenade for strings that gets a bit of radio play over here, as well as that Little Serenade by Lars-Erik Larsson
+ The strikingly progressive Liszt-era composer Franz Berwald saw a renaissance this last century, especially his Symphony no. 3, "Singulière"
+ Kurt Atterberg has a few pieces that have followings in the States, specifically his luscious Symphony no. 2

One man who hasn't gained any clout away from home, but perhaps should have, is Wilhelm Stenhammar, whose most respected pieces are his 2 finished symphonies and 6 string quartets.  I can vouch for the third string quartet possessing great craftsmanship, enchanting melodies and moments of appealing surprise, all qualities present in today's featured piece, Sensommarnätter, op. 33.  The end of Summer has a kind of special quality when one lives as far north as in Sweden, largely because Summer is more notable there, as well.  I had the privilege of visiting Sweden during the Summer and not only is the weather surprisingly pleasant but there's the entrancing effect of the Midnight Sun.  Perhaps in reflection of similar feelings the Sensommarnätter (Late Summer Nights) possess a sense of foreboding sadness that perfectly fits the change in seasons.

The work is set in five movements of alternating speeds, opening with a deeply-cast lyricism.  Appropriately enough for a nocturnal work, the first melody is in the tenor, portament-ing its way up the bass cleff so fully as to make cellists salivate.  It's hard not to like how most of the melodic material, and interior texture, of the movement is simply moving around scales, as one has to like new ways to make that sound interesting.  Much effect is also gotten by expanding the harmonic and technical scope of the left-hand material as ideas are repeated, especially the huge arpeggiated chords in the last iteration of the "B" theme.

The second movement is a kind of etude for repeated attacks with one hand, one that looks reasonable on the page but is surprisingly difficult, as most pianists will want to alternate hands instead.  As soon as you think you're tired with all that, however, Stenhammar switches it up to a sprightly "B" section with bounding arpeggios that scoop from one chord to another with humorous grace; later it's "A" business as usual.

The third movement is arguably the best of the bunch, a diffuse nocturne that alternates between lithe preciousness and deep anticipation.  Much like the opening movement there is an expert marriage of melody and harmonic ambition, and the piano technique surprises in its elaboration without becoming a chore.  One of the more remarkable moments is the great welling up in the bass of E major after the opening section nearly resolves, showing Stenhammar experimenting with planing sevenths and fourths.  It's one of four expansive figures that feel like enormous sighs, with the second and fourth phrases allowing the pedal to release as the left hand assumes material introduced in an ascending series of thirds and the right to rise into space, like Debussy's perfumes turning in the evening air.

The fourth movement is one of those sinister galloping pieces, a genre that quickly went out of fashion once Modernism got rolling along but is amply served here.  This is the most difficult of the movements to play, as there are not only very fast inverse cascades at pp but also widely-spanning motorific bits in the left hand that get tiring quickly.  Many other devilish bits abound.  I'd like to mention here that I've never tried to play this movement.

The last movement rounds the set out with another ingenious pairing of melody and harmony, this time in a kind of moderate passepied in character of those wistful early Debussy movements from the Suite Bergamasque and the Petite Suite.  Even though the material is simple on the surface there are many novel harmonic movements and small textural touches that make for a fine closer.

The whole set exudes a lively combination of charm and untroubling seriousness that make it one of Stenhammar's most appealing works.  There have been a few album-length overviews of Stenhammar's piano works, including a pair of piano sonatas, but the Sensommarnätter are my favorites and his best chance of securing a place in the international piano rep.  A couple of the movements might appear a bit too old-fashioned for modern tastes but I think their variety and invention easily overcome any creakiness.  Stay tuned this week for more late Summer delights, as things get much weirder and wilder from here...


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