Stenhammar: Excelsior!; Symphony No. 2

Neeme Järvi

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Stenhammar: Excelsior!; Symphony No. 2 Review

by James Leonard

For devotees of the fin de siècle Scandinavian symphonies, Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra's 1979 world-premiere recording of Wilhelm Stenhammar's First Symphony was incredibly exciting. For one thing, the work itself, while not great, illuminated a previously unknown phase in the composer's career. And for another, given Järvi's already pronounced proclivity to record complete symphonic cycles, his recording of the youthful First promised a recording of the mature Second, one of the glories of its time and place. That promise was fulfilled in this 1983 recording of the Second coupled with the Overture Excelsior! While the Overture, like the First Symphony, is worth hearing for its exuberance and enthusiasm, the Second is mandatory listening for any listener who reveres the symphonies of Sibelius and Nielsen. Like his contemporaries, the Swedish composer's youthful romanticism had grown into a more direct and austere art, and in his four-movement Second, Stenhammar's harmonic language is nearly modal, his textures scrupulously clean, his colors strong and primary, his formal construction brilliantly masterful, his drama utterly compelling, and his tone exalted and idealistic. Järvi and the Gothenburg turn in a performance of exemplary power and control, with persuasive conducting and skillful playing, and if their recording didn't eclipse Stig Westerberg and the Stockholm Philharmonic's monumental 1978 recording or Tor Mann and the Stockholm's magnificent 1950 recording, it did introduce a new digital audience to a great piece of music, always a good and useful thing to do.

Back when digital sound was still a novel technology, some labels put warnings on the covers of their discs alerting listeners of potential harm to their stereo systems if they weren't up to the latest advances at either extreme of the frequency range. BIS' warning for this disc was especially extreme: "Contrary to established practice this recording retains the staggering dynamics of the ORIGINAL performance. This may damage your loudspeakers, but given first-rate playback equipment you are guaranteed a truly remarkable musical and audio experience. Good luck!" What can one add save that they're not kidding: the sound on this disc is truly staggering, though, some might argue, not necessarily more realistic or more enjoyable than earlier stereo or monaural recordings' sound.

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