Davies Hall, San Francisco
February 10, 2028
The San Francisco Symphony
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 73, Emperor (1809)
Stenhammar – Symphony No. 2 in G minor, Opus 34 (1915)
One could wait a lifetime for this concert! I nearly did. And while Herbert Blomstedt is in his 90s now, you can only suppose—lucky man to be Swedish—he didn’t spend as many years wondering what the Stenhammar Second Symphony would sound like in concert. Wilhelm Stenhammar is Sweden’s greatest composer, after all, not without honor in his own country, like Vaughan Williams in England or Martinů in the Czech Republic. But it has taken time in the modern era to recognize which quieter and deeper voices from a nation’s immediate past are the ones we will take to heart internationally. I can only thank Blomstedt profoundly for carrying this symphony on his guest-conducting rounds. Senior conductors can be influential that way. Erich Leinsdorf adopted the Martinů Fourth Symphony in his later years, and the work is now well established in concert halls far and wide. One hopes for a similar outcome here.
Vilhelm Stenhammar was Sweden’s most important conductor/composer at the turn of the 20th century, Music Director of the Gothenburg Symphony and a catalyst for the careers of Nielsen and Sibelius. His first symphonic effort (later self-rejected, but boasting several recordings today) owes a lot to Bruckner. The Second Symphony here in question is a product of Stenhammar’s full maturity, along with the Serenade, and a notably original work stylistically. It was written as a gesture of thanks and affection for the composer’s years at the helm in Gothenburg.
Music critics don’t often speak in riddles, but I will, just for a moment. Where did all the trills go? That’s right. After Mozart and a few moments in Beethoven’s Second, Eroica and Fourth Symphonies, where did they go? Actually, phrase-ending trills pretty much disappeared from symphonic music for a hundred years. You can hunt through the major 19th century symphonies of Schumann and Brahms, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Mahler, and not encounter these polished, fluttery declarations, so second-nature to Bach and Mozart in their elegant purrs. Indeed, throughout the century, orchestral trills disappear or become Bruckner tremolos—until we come to Stenhammar and, much later, Schreker and Hindemith. I suspect trills were ultimately thought old-fashioned and prettifying.
Stenhammar’s Second Symphony evokes an unusually warm, bardic, timeless quality. It’s both of the present and in the past at the same time. Declamation through trills has a lot to do with the effect. This music is like Brahms at midnight, with an eye for nostalgia, and a calm sense that time is slipping. It’s about maturity, affection and acceptance, rather than struggle. Hysteria is totally absent in Stenhammar, along with any sense of sarcasm, bitterness or hate. That’s rare. It’s happy. Yet maybe you will cry, it’s so beautiful.
Where other symphonies attack and delve into crisis, this one goes for a serene stroll with a loved one, climbs a hill or two, dances at a party, impassions wistfully and genuinely, and ultimately barrels along fugally in galvanizing high spirits, before summing itself up triumphantly with a sort of ” Ah, that’s the way it was” ending. The music, in other words, is extremely Swedish! And along the way, yes, we have joyous trills everywhere for full brass and strings! Sometimes they are Brucknerian in the horns and muscular over stuttering timpani, at other times just a solo clarinet taking you back to the kiss you wish you could repeat. But they lend this work a wonderful, aristocratic demeanor. It’s nice sometimes not to suffer in music. Stenhammar brings us an attractive world you wouldn’t mind belonging to.
The concert began with Garrick Ohlsson delivering a magisterial, somewhat slow reading of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. I wasn’t in love with the sound of his piano, which came across brash to me in row O, and I was struck that this was an “old man’s” performance, orchestrally. You can always tell that’s the case in Beethoven or Mozart, when hard-thwacked timpani are the only instruments on stage trying to rescue a sagging melodic line, and the piano part seems nothing but arpeggios. Things plodded, but Ohlsson made up for this is with his encore, the gentle A-major opening movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28, Opus 101. And some of the elision effects he achieved with sustaining pedal throughout the concerto were intriguing.
Herbert Blomstedt is now almost 91. He’s reaching the stage where a conductor conserves energy, throws himself less bodily into the music and perhaps enjoys too much the mere presence of one note coming along after the other. Stokowski and Giulini got that way in old age. Blomstedt onstage was clearly in love with the Stenhammar, yet you could argue he strolled through the first movement a bit statically. Even so, the audience responded with warmth. The conductor remains a Swedish schoolboy at heart. You can see the innocent enjoyment in his face, as he sends yet another bar of music tootling along with an affectionate side-swipe of his palm. Blomstedt can also be heard on YouTube speaking about his love for the Stenhammar in exactly the understated way you would suppose. “I hope you have a good time with it”, he says simply.