Stenhammar’s First Symphony is so rarely performed outside Sweden the BBC SSO thought its concert might be a premiere. In fact, the amateur Dalkeith Symphony Orchestra got there first...
On the wall of the backstage coffee bar in the concert hall home of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra is a letter of resignation, dated 1922, from its one-time music director, the Swedish composer and conductor Wilhelm Stenhammar. In it, he describes himself as “a razor whose edge is now blunt.”
Such self-deprecation was typical of a man who, according to the British conductor Andrew Manze, a former music director of Sweden’s Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, was “self-critical, hard-working, and at times lacking in confidence.” Yet, during a lifetime that extended from 1871 to 1927, Stenhammar wrote an impressive, if modest, canon of music – two operas, two symphonies, several theatre scores and numerous songs among them – that are still regularly performed and highly respected by Swedish orchestras and choirs.
“He is as known, loved and highly rated in Sweden as Elgar is in England,” claims Manze, who will conduct the orchestral Serenade on 16 March and the Symphony No 1 on 19 March as part of a three-concert mini-series by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra that also features the Second Symphony in an opening programme, on 12 March, directed by the Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu.
There’s also a fascinating bit of local intrigue attached to this forthcoming performance of the First Symphony. The SSO initially thought theirs would be the very first in Scotland, if not in the UK. After all, many may recall that the Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi – a pioneering revivalist of Stenhammar’s music through his 1980s performances and recordings with the Gothenburg orchestra – did not programme that particular work during his firebrand years at the helm of the RSNO.
This train of thought set the SSO’s marketing executive Chris Dale on a journey to determine if this might actually be the Scottish premiere of a symphony, written in 1903, but subsequently disregarded by the self-doubting Stenhammar.
What Dale discovered was completely unexpected. There had indeed been a performance in Scotland 30 years ago – not by a professional orchestra, but by the Dalkeith Symphony Orchestra, an amateur band conducted by the now-retired Midlothian primary teacher, Malcolm Porteous.
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Porteous is a well-ken’t face even today around the Usher Hall, where he is a regular attender of RSNO concerts with an informed musical mind. And it was at one of these regular Friday concerts, back in the 1980s, that he hatched the plot for his own Stenhammar premiere.
“I had already been impressed by the First Symphony through an LP recording by Järvi and the Gothenburg orchestra,” he explains. “I took an instant fancy to it. There was an obvious influence on the young composer from his Romantic heroes – Mendelssohn, Wagner and Bruckner – which may not have been fashionable at a time when Sibelius and others were writing symphonies with a very different, modern approach.”
Nonetheless, Porteous reckoned a performance was worth pursuing, and by chance he was at the Usher Hall the night the RSNO announced that Järvi would be their new music director. At a reception afterwards he sought out the conductor, expressed his delight at his recording of the symphony, and enquired how he might get hold of the music for his own amateur orchestra.
“I’m afraid the answer is you can’t,” Järvi told him. Apparently it only existed in original manuscript parts owned by the Gothenburg orchestra and these were not allowed out of Sweden. Undaunted, Porteous called a friend in the National Library of Scotland who suggested he contact the Swedish Music Information Centre, STIM, who told him the same story.
A week later, however, Porteous received a call from STIM, saying that his letter had been read out to the board and a decision had been made to photocopy a set of parts and make them available on loan to the Dalkeith amateurs. Porteous told Järvi this at a later RSNO concert, who “burst out laughing” and kindly offered to take him through the score.
“A lot of it was difficult to make sense of, as it was handwritten in ink with other bits pencilled in,” Porteous recalls. In the end, he and the orchestra performed it in Midlothian and later in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. “It got a mixed reception,” he says. “We carried it off, but in the end it was an amateur performance, some rough edges, but always with the right attitude.” More important, the score Porteous conducted from listed 11 previous performances, all of which were in Sweden. It was certainly the first Scottish performance. But was it the UK premiere? No-one is absolutely sure.
At this point, Manze can bring us up to date. “An excellent new edition has been made by Finn Rosengren as part of the huge Swedish Music Heritage project,” he reveals. “The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and I test drove this edition in concerts last year.”
And what is his verdict of the symphony the young Stenhammar rejected? “Being a relatively early work, it reflects the situation in Swedish musical life at the time, which was perhaps similar to that in Britain: composers following the Austro-German lead.
“When one looks at the symphony, an hour long with full orchestra including six glorious horns, there appear to be nods towards Bruckner and perhaps Wagner, even Brahms in one or two places. But when listening, I no longer have those other composers in mind. Like most late 19th century composers, Stenhammar used Germanic tools, techniques and palettes, but his musical personality is strong enough to dispel any whiff of pastiche.”
So, while this is certainly not the work’s Scottish premiere, it will be the first performance here by a professional orchestra, under a conductor whose links with Sweden should ensure it is presented in the spirit Stenhammar intended.
• The BBC SSO perform Stenhammar’s First and Second Symphonies and Serenade over three concerts at the City Halls, Glasgow, on 12, 16 and 19 March, www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso