Wilhelm Stenhammar is a major discovery for anyone who enjoys large scale Romantic orchestral music. The CD era was especially notable for its contributions to classical music by expanding the available repertoire one could sample. The big international labels always stuck to the Big Names and the Big Works, and still do. Their very size dictates large minimum sales. But CDs broke their hold and brought into play many independent labels that recorded repertoire previously ignored, much to the delight of those of us who were tired of reading about composers but not being able to hear their work. Ironically, this recording actually is by one of the biggest majors (Universal, formerly Polygram) but is in the nature of a "favor" to a conductor who has done well for them, allowing him to champion some composer who is usually the domain of the small independents, much like when EMI let Mauriss Jansons record the Svendsen symphonies.
If you enjoy Romantic orchestral music (and Postromantic - Stenhammar is both, but I hate these pedanic definitions) You will find quite a trove of it in the Scandinavian composers. The usual reason given in books and liner notes is that Scandinavia was totally uninvolved in the Great War, and thus 19th Century sensibilities went on there for some time uninterrupted, including the Romantic approach to Symphonic music. Of course we all know our Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen - they are given to us - but virtually everyone else has remained in the Regional repertoires and must be discovered for yourself.
For me, Stenhammar is clearly the best of all the little-known Scandinavian composers up to the 1920's and 1930's, and is worthy of rediscovery by public and critics alike. His entire output is limited, as he was a busy conductor (the first of the Gothenburg Orchestra, who play here), concert pianist and member of Tor Aulin's String Quartet, the most famous in Scandinavia at the time. In fact his String Quartets are as major a part of Stenhammar's musical output as his Orchestral works, which are nearly complete in this box set and only need the addition of his two superb piano concertos (see the relatively new Naxos CD).
The two discs here are very different from each other, with the first being early works (1896 & 1903) showing much influence of German composers and the second being two great masterworks in which he created his own style and became more Nordic. This means disc two will always be much more rewarding than disc one, but the earlier music is not without its merits. The Excelsior Overture always pulls you in right away with its opening seeming to be in the midst of a piece that began a while ago, much like you were late to the concert hall and just opened the door. It is very forward-moving, a characteristic of this composer, and has a huge Brucknerian ending, also showing the influence of Wagner and Brahms along the way. This is not to denigrate the composer or the work. Clasical music evolved out of earlier classical music and a young composer will almost always show the influence of those who have gone before. It may be a Postmodern concept that every composer must have a totally self-created sound, but it is not appropriate to judge 19th Century composers that way.
The Symphony No. 1 was withdrawn by the composer and not given an opus number, calling it superficial, which in fact it essentially is. But that's not to say it's not competent writing. It's wonderfully scored with many beautiful and exciting passages and one can even hear Beethoven's influence in it as well as the fact that the big climax of every movement is pure Bruckner (but Stenhammar was the first to introduce Bruckner to Scandinavia at this time and was obviously taken with him). It's interesting and worth hearing.
But almost twenty years divide the works of disc two from the youthful works and a great deal had gone on in Stenhammar's composition. Basically, he was doing what all the Postromantics were doing (especially in England and France), and that was to free music from the rigidity of the Germanic tradition and create music that was more fluid and less bound by rules, and at the same time explore chromatic harmony and the large forces of the symphony orchestra as it had evolved. Stenhammar did this admirably, and you will find few works that flow as freely and swiftly as his Serenade and Second Symphony.
The Serenade is impossible to pin down, always flowing, always changing, very light and delicate with movements flowing into each other without pause. The first Jarvi recording of this work (on the BIS label) had an impressionist painting of a deer in a leafy forest, dappled with sunlight, and that almost perfectly describes this piece, as fleeting as sunlight patterns in a forest on a breezy day, full of light and energy. Though he acknowledged being inspired by nature with the coming of Spring in Italy, nevertheless produced a work that conjures up Northern climes for me with its extensive use of horns and brass as well as timpani, especially in its gigantic scherzo with a thundering climax that alone makes the piece worth listening to.
The Second Symphony, written around the same time is not quite as fluid as the Serenade, but is a bit more traditional in giving the listener more big melodies to hold onto, some of the even folk-based (though , Stenhammar was not one of the Nationalist composers). It is a big work, simply huge at times, full of brass fanfares, soaring strings, horns and timpani with a joyous, dancelike Scherzo and a finale that starts and stops before finally barreling on to a great crescendo. The only thing it can be compared to is Sibelius (the horns and timpani obviously) but the work is completely Stenhammar's.
Jarvi has a reputation for being rather brusque in his conducting, often missing nuance, but that's not the case here. He obviously understands Stenhammar and provides beautiful and exciting interpretations of his symphonic works. That he got a big label with big distribution to record these works is even more to his credit. Stenhammar needs to be heard.