Ever bought a record just for the opening track? You’d be sorely tempted by this offering from the Gothenburg Symphony and Herbert Blomstedt, a pairing of the second symphony by a pal of Sibelius’s with his orchestral serenade. Swedes regard Stenhammar’s 2nd, dated 1914, as their best symphony after Sibelius and some have argued the case with me alcoholically far into the unbroken winter’s night.
I am not persuaded. Stenhammar might have enjoyed a drink or few with Sibelius but the most he got out of these sessions was an imitative gift and a blinding hangover. The first movement of that symphony, though, is another matter altogether. Opening with the low-strings melody of a raw fishing song, it has an atmosphere that is at once organic and ethereal, suspending the listener between earth and sky and the music in a zone where it finds its own logic. There are hints of churchiness and baroque throwbacks, but the music is pure sub-Arctic oxygen. By the end of the first movement, you are breathless to hear what comes next.
There’s an interesting theme at the start of the second movement but it proves to have limited development potential. The third section is a bore and the finale a bit of a textbook blast. Sibelius, it ain’t. As for the Serenade, it’s a serenade. The earth does not move. Stenhammar died in 1927 without enhancing his reputation.
Still, that first movement. Buy it.