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J. Sibelius, W. Stenhamar, E. Grieg: Nordic Piano Sonatas

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  • Artist(s): Fabiano Casanova
  • Composer(s): Edward Grieg, Jean Sibelius, Wilhelm Stenhammar
  • EAN Code: 0746160911267
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Piano
  • Period: Romantic
  • Publication year: 2020
  • Sound Engineer: Gabriele Zanetti
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Description

Scandinavia is a composite and yet unified reality. In the foreigners’ eyes, its landscapes show a remarkable distinctiveness, in spite of their extreme variety: it may be the light, or the feeling that nature has a powerful grip on the rhythms and forms of human life. Also on the cultural plane, each of its countries has a rich tradition and traits of its own, but there is also a substantial unity. While one should always be wary of stereotypical descriptions, listeners have often perceived a “northern” quality in Scandinavian art and literature: in particular, many musical works by the most important Scandinavian composers suggest a breadth of vision, a large horizon made of wide phrasings and sustained singing, which seems to match the northern “nostalgia”, the longing for the sun and for the warm season, but also the sense of freedom of its limitless sky and of its enchanting and magical landscapes.
Scandinavian musical traditions, both popular and “cultivated”, have long roots; however, it was particularly since the second half of the nineteenth century that Scandinavian music “as such” began to conquer a place of its own within the international panorama, though not without difficulties. There was always a latent risk of exoticism: rather frequently, a composer’s birthplace could matter more than his or her inherent artistic worth. On the other hand, some Scandinavian composers could be tempted to renounce their specific musical and cultural heritage in favour of a mainstream approach, which fatally tended to be absorbed by the most widespread aesthetic currents of their time.
One of the first Scandinavian musicians who proudly stated his identity in his music, and conquered the admiration of musicians of Robert Schumann’s standing, was Niels Wilhelm Gade, the dedicatee of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Sonata in E minor, recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album. Having spent some important years of his life in Leipzig, where he befriended Mendelssohn, Schumann and the other great musicians of the time, he returned to Denmark and gradually let the “Danish” component of his artistry emerge, thus paving the way for many later musicians. Gade’s only Piano Sonata, written at the age of 23, is in E minor, just as that by Edvard Grieg, who evidently took inspiration both from Gade’s “German” academic imprinting (in turn, Grieg had studied in Leipzig) and from their common Scandinavian heritage.
Grieg was twenty-two years old when he composed this Sonata, which has gained a stable place in the concert seasons worldwide. This role is well deserved: the piece is magnificent, and is perhaps the first important demonstration of Grieg’s value as a mature and accomplished composer.
In particular, the first movement, Allegro moderato, clearly alludes to the poetic world of the German Romanticism: indeed, the German word for nostalgia/desire, Sehnsucht, might express the Scandinavian feeling of longing in a particularly appropriate fashion. This movement is emotionally charged and powerful, with virtuoso and brilliant moments, but, overall, with a masterful architectural planning.
The second and third movements are perhaps “less German” and more “Norwegian”: in particular, they display interesting allusions to dance movements, seen with lightness, elegance and brio, but also moments of passionate singing, rich in expressive power.
The rhapsodic Finale is memorable, and reveals also the influence of Johannes Brahms, in the general concept, which (seemingly) eschews linearity and consequentiality in favour of a (carefully planned) improvisatory style, and in the ability to treat motivic and thematic elements taken from the popular sphere in an extremely refined fashion. Grieg himself recorded this Sonata in 1903, and provided a fascinating model of how he imagined this piece, even many years after its composition: as a brilliant work, with infinite shades and nuances, and with a solid overarching shape.
The Finn Jean Sibelius was Grieg’s junior by approximately twenty years, but the influence of Grieg’s view of the Scandinavian musical landscape was evidently clear in Sibelius’ mind. During the years of his musical education, in Helsinki, Sibelius had got acquainted with the great Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni, who was his equal in age, but who was already a professor at the Helsinki academy and an acclaimed concert musician when Sibelius was still a violin student. Busoni and Sibelius developed a long-lasting friendship, even though there were some misunderstandings and aesthetical differences between them; undeniably, however, Busoni’s dazzling pianism can be perceived behind the characteristic writing of Sibelius’ Piano Sonata.
Written in 1893, when Sibelius was in his late twenties, and performed a couple of years later in Helsinki, this is the only piano Sonata written by him, who was allegedly not particularly fond of the piano (“it is an instrument which cannot sing”, he is frequently quoted to have said). This scarce sympathy seems sometimes to be betrayed by the non-idiomatic features of Sibelius’ scoring: the work has been often criticized for resembling more closely a “transcription of a symphony” rather than a piano sonata proper. However, one of the pioneers of the Finnish pianism, Ilmari Hannikainen, was enthusiastic about it: “the F major Piano sonata”, he stated, “is a splendid work. Fresh, refreshing and full of life. … I have sometimes heard people mention the orchestral tone of the sonata (the left-hand tremolos) … In my opinion the sonata shows Sibelian piano style at its most genuine. There is no question of there being any tremolos in it. Everything that looks like that is really to be played in quavers or semi-quavers, in the manner of, say, Beethoven’s piano sonatas. … When it is well and carefully rehearsed – and performed – the F major sonata is truly a virtuoso piece”. In fact, while it may be utterly different from the most common stylistic solutions adopted by the contemporaneous composers, it displays a noteworthy underlying concept, and the aural result is really fascinating. The first movement does indeed remind us of a symphonic concept, both as concerns its epic and narrative style, and as regards the timbral choices, reminiscent of orchestral vibrations: if Sibelius thought that the piano, as a “percussion” instrument, could not sing, he was clearly trying to make it sing as much as possible!
From the compositional viewpoint, the second movement is one of the most interesting, as it explores the modal language, offering a pianistic elaboration of an earlier work by the composer – originally a setting of a song for male choir, whose lyrics are excerpted from the Kalevala. Here too, however, elements of dance and of popular tunes intervene sparsely, demonstrating how expression and irony may intermingle with each other.
The third movement is a fiery and enthralling piece, with a pronounced virtuoso character and rising waves of sound, also thanks to the pervasive rhythms of the folkloric music; at the same time, once more, poetry is never absent, and it involves the listener in a profound and emotional fashion.
The youngest of the three composers represented here is also the less known among them, the Swedish musician Wilhelm Stenhammar. Different from Sibelius, he was a skilled concert pianist himself, who was able to conquer the audiences through his acclaimed performances of the great piano concertos of the era: he was the protagonist of the Swedish premiere of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, and soon afterwards he successfully premiered his own First Piano Concerto. He was also very active as a conductor and a chamber musician, and he continued concertizing internationally in the following years. Notwithstanding his perfect mastery of the piano technique, relatively few of his works are for the piano, and he seldom played them in public. There are five Piano Sonatas authored by him, and the Sonata in G minor (possibly inspired by Schumann’s own Sonata in G minor) is possibly the best known and the most successful of them. Here, the composer – who was in his early twenties at the time – had already managed to find a voice of his own. This large-scale piece, in four movements, features a mature compositional technique and very demanding virtuoso passages. All parameters of musical composition are expanded and enlarged with respect to earlier works: chordal textures, dynamic range, chromaticism, melodic lines. The initial Allegro vivace e passionato is majestic in scope and broadly painted, though without neglecting the details; it is a showpiece for both the composer and the performer. Similar to what happens in the internal movements of Grieg’s Piano Sonata, here too the second and third movement seem to refer more explicitly to the Scandinavian heritage, in the nostalgia of the second movement and in the folk-like traits of the Scherzo. The concluding Prestissimo is a virtuosic tour de force, displaying the technical accomplishment of the young pianist and the boldness of his compositional style.
Thus, these three Piano Sonatas, each written by a composer in his twenties, open up a window on the beautiful musical panorama of the Scandinavian late Romanticism: they musically introduce us to their countries, their landscapes, their horizons, but also to their dreams, ambitions and hopes for their own future and for those of their countries.

Liner Notes by Chiara Bertoglio

Artist(s)

Fabiano Casanova: "A great talent with a strong artistic and magneticpersonality through which he can deeply communicate his extraordinary passion and his rich inner life."
So the Russian composer R.Shchedrin defines the pianist Fabiano Casanova after his playing of some of his compositions.
His concert career takes him to play as a soloist in Italy and abroad, playing for major concert societies and in important halls such as: " Società dei Concerti" in Milan”, Concert Season of the Symphony Orchestra of Rome , "Società del Quartetto" in Bergamo , Chamber Season of " Teatro Dal Verme " in Milan, Kolarac Foundation Hall of Belgrade, Rohm Music Foundation Hall of Kyoto, Fukuoka Airef Hall, Seymour Theatre Centre in Sydney, Grünewaldsalen in Stockholm, Saint Martin in the Fields in London, just to name a few.
His repertoire ranges from baroque to the contemporary pages of C.Vine, G.Ligeti and R.Shchedrin.
As a soloist, he performed with Orchestra Sinfonica of Roma and Roma Tre Orchestra.
Chamber music has a very important role in his concert activity: he's shared the stages with leading musicians like Boris Baraz, Igor Volochine, Alexander Chaushian and Diemut Poppen.
Charismatic and refined Piano Professor, he's often invited to give masterclasses in Italy and abroad, and as juror in many competitions.

Composer(s)

Edward Grieg (b Bergen, 15 June 1843; d Bergen, 4 Sept 1907). Norwegian composer, pianist and conductor. He was the foremost Scandinavian composer of his generation and the principal promoter of Norwegian music. His genius was for lyric pieces – songs and piano miniatures – in which he drew on both folktunes and the Romantic tradition, but his Piano Concerto found a place in the central repertory, and his String Quartet foreshadows Debussy.

Jean Sibelius (b Hämeenlinna, 8 Dec 1865; d Järvenpää, 20 Sept 1957). Finnish composer. He was the central figure in creating a Finnish voice in music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most significant output was orchestral: seven symphonies, one violin concerto, several sets of incidental music and numerous tone poems, often based on incidents taken from the Kalevala, the Finnish-language folk epic. His work is distinguished by startlingly original adaptations of familiar elements: unorthodox treatments of triadic harmony, orchestral colour and musical process and structure. His music evokes a range of characteristic moods and topics, from celebratory nationalism and political struggle to cold despair and separatist isolation; from brooding contemplations of ‘neo-primitive’ musical ideas or slowly transforming sound textures to meditations on the mysteries, grandeurs and occasionally lurking terrors of archetypal folk myths or natural landscapes. A master of symphonic continuity and compressed, ‘logical’ musical structure, he grounded much of his music in his own conception of the Finnish national temperament. Throughout the 20th century Finland regarded him as a national hero and its most renowned artist. Outside Finland, Sibelius's reputation has been volatile, with passionate claims made both by advocates and detractors. The various reactions to his music have provided some of the most ideologically charged moments of 20th-century reception history.

Wilhelm Stenhammar (b Stockholm, 7 Feb 1871; d Stockholm, 20 Nov 1927). Swedish composer, pianist and conductor. He grew up in a home where the arts were strongly encouraged: his father Per Ulrik Stenhammar (1828–75) was an architect and composer (a pupil of Lindblad, he wrote sacred choral works and songs in a Mendelssohnian style) and his mother a fine draughtswoman; his uncle and aunt, Oskar Fredrik and Fredrika Stenhammar, were both singers, and their daughter Elsa (Elfrida Marguerite) became a choral conductor (she published an edition of her mother’s letters, Stockholm, 1958). The Stenhammar children and their friends formed a vocal group which was highly esteemed in the upper-class circles where they entertained. Wilhelm began to compose and to play the piano as a child, without much formal training. He never went to a conservatory but passed the organists’ examination privately in 1890, after two years with Heintze and Lagergren. He did, however, attend the music school run by the eminent piano teacher Richard Andersson, and had theory lessons from Joseph Dente in 1888–9 (‘terribly boring’, according to his diary sketch of 1891) and later from Emil Sjögren and Andreas Hallén. Nevertheless, in composition and conducting he must be regarded as self-taught. Several of his early compositional efforts, such as the Tre körvisor (c1890) and some songs, still hold a place in the repertory.

Stenhammar may have considered his lack of formal instruction a handicap, for as late as 1909 he started a nine-year course of exercises, eventually covering 500 pages, based on Heinrich Bellermann’s Der Contrapunkt. It is likely that his uncertainty and self-questioning were exacerbated by his high ambitions and by his feeling that he was seeking his own way, a way not quite in accord with that of his contemporaries Peterson-Berger and Alfvén. He completed his piano studies with Heinrich Barth in Berlin (1892–3) and in spring 1902 made a remarkable triple début: he performed Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with the hovkapell; he played with the Aulin Quartet; and he had his I rosengård for solo voices, chorus and orchestra (1888–9) presented. Following this he appeared frequently as a soloist and gave around 1000 concerts with Aulin and his quartet all over Sweden.

Stenhammar’s début as a conductor had come earlier, in 1897, when he directed the first performance of his concert overture Excelsior!. He held appointments as artistic director of the Stockholm Philharmonic Society (1897–1900), of the Royal Opera for one season, of the New Philharmonic Society (1904–6) and of the newly formed Göteborg Orchestral Society (1906–22). In this last post he made the city a musical rival to Stockholm: he invited Nielsen to conduct, and he organized grand choral festivals involving large numbers of composers (notably his friend Sibelius), performers and listeners. When in 1924–5 he returned to the Royal Opera, he was already sick and physically broken.

As a composer Stenhammar began in the late Romantic style typical of Scandinavia, imbued with influences from such composers as Wagner, Liszt and Brahms. Later his work came to be dominated by a classicism of his own, based principally on a profound study of Beethoven but also on Haydn and Mozart (a fruit of his prodigious activity as a chamber musician), and on Renaissance polyphony. In his greatest compositions these traits are always tinged with a specifically Nordic colour relating to Swedish folk music, though he did not quote genuine themes to the extent that Peterson-Berger and Alfvén did. His two early music dramas, Gildet på Solhaug and Tirfing, were not successful, and though he loved the theatre and wrote a great deal of excellent incidental music, he never returned to opera. Tirfing (1897–8) provoked a crisis, causing him seriously to question Romantic aesthetics – and above all Wagner – but not entirely to reject them.

Stenhammar’s ‘second period’ found him striving for more concentrated motivic work and a deeper manner. The magnificent cantata Ett folk (1904–5) shows these tendencies in an emotive outburst of eager national feeling; the unaccompanied hymn ‘Sverige’ included in the work has become one of Stenhammar’s most appreciated choral pieces, though here the patriotic feeling is noble and intimate. A new stylistic advance came with the much played Second Piano Concerto, whose Beethovenian dialogue between soloists and orchestra, with the tonalities of D minor and C minor in contest, has a finely improvised form. The First Symphony, however, was discarded by the composer, since the work was too obviously dependent on Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner.

Stenhammar’s third and final period may be dated from the Fifth String Quartet (1910), the first work composed after his studies in strict counterpoint. This piece lives up to its subtitle ‘Serenade’ in its vitality and humour, and comes to terms with folklorism in a masterly series of variations on the nursery rhyme Riddaren Finn Komfusenfej. Other works of the last period include two orchestral compositions which stand among the greatest in the Swedish repertory, the Serenade and the Second Symphony. The former shows Stenhammar’s ripe, deep knowledge of orchestration and has a tinge of Impressionist lightness combined with a quite Scandinavian nature poetry (there are hints of Strauss and Sibelius); it is at once the most aristocratic and most lighthearted of his larger works. The symphony, on the other hand, aims at objectivity, even asceticism, as may be exemplified by the Dorian feeling of its G minor tonality and the expert handling of fugato in the finale. At the same time it is full of allusions to Swedish folk music and, in the first and scherzo-like third movements, folkdance rhythms: it brings together all the best qualities he had so far displayed.

Outstanding among Stenhammar’s later compositions is the ‘symphonic cantata’ Sången, written for the 150th anniversary of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music. It consists of two main parts, the first seemingly recalling youthful Sturm und Drang, the second austere and slightly Handelian; these are linked by an interlude, ‘Mellanspel’, which is often performed separately. His other important vocal works include the early ballad Florez och Blanzeflor, with its brilliant orchestral accompaniment, and a large number of very finely wrought songs to poems chosen with discriminating taste. Several of these are among the most prized art songs of Sweden; the collection Visor och stämningar provides some exquisite examples, full of ingenious formal ideas. Finally, his series of six quartets was unique in Sweden at the time; they range from rather subservient Beethoven copies to an increasingly personal and assured style in the last three.

Stenhammar’s son Claes Göran Stenhammar (1897–1968) was cantor at the Storkyrkan in Stockholm and later a teacher at the conservatory. Stenhammar himself had few pupils, though Rosenberg received certain decisive influences from him and may be said to have passed these on to younger generations.