Friday, January 14, 2011

Recordings: Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra

Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Stig Westerberg, conductor
Caprice CAP21369

Deutsch Kammerakademie Neuss
Johannes Goritzki, conductor
CPO 999225

Musica Vitae
Petter Sundkvist, conductor
Caprice CAP21739

Nordic Chamber Orchestra
Christian Lindberg, conductor

This work, by no means a Pettersson crowd-pleaser (if there is such a thing), has been very generously represented on disc. Given the fact that it is unlikely for most of us to be at the right place at the right time on the rare occasion that this work is performed, it is nice to have multiple recorded versions to listen to.

In Michael Kube’s very informative liner notes accompanying the BIS release, Pettersson said that this work should be played from the following perspective: “Expression, great urgency, wildly alternating and striking rhythms take precedence over accuracy of intonation in a dense mass of sonority. So do not reduce the tempo in order to get the details pedantically correct.” This statement very succinctly summarizes the criteria with which I will assess the recordings in this entry.

To play this work as Pettersson intended there is a balancing act between achieving the intensity and sandpaper-like abrasiveness that this music quite often requires, while at the same time bringing out the relevant contrapuntal and rhythmic details. Then of course there is the “dense mass of sonority” that Pettersson requested, which can put the chamber orchestras at a disadvantage to the larger string sections of the Swedish RSO.

Of course comparing recordings is a subjective matter, and for me I think the Swedish RSO comes out on top, although the other two Swedish bands are just as good, if not better in some ways. I think the SRSO achieves essentially what Pettersson wanted: a dense mass of sound, fleet tempos, and, well, some inaccuracies of intonation. This is not to say that the SRSO strings play out of tune, I think it’s just a matter of the increased difficulty of getting larger string sections to play with tight intonation and ensemble when compared to chamber bands. Perhaps the fact that this recording is old helps a bit in terms of achieving an abrasive sound, but I think it is more of a function of having more players just digging in and kicking up a big cloud of rosin.

The other two Swedish bands come in a close second to the SRSO, although I prefer Sundkvist just a hair more than Lindberg in terms of the intensity of performance. I have to admit being surprised (although definitely pleased) when I heard a few years ago that Lindberg was going to finish up the BIS series—from what I know of Lindberg he is a flamboyant and life-loving stage presence, which kinda seems at odds with Pettersson. So when I heard Lindberg’s take on this music I was not surprised at the result. Rather than engaging with the harsh and dark aspects of this work, to my ears Lindberg emphasizes clarity and dynamic range. The NCO also plays with an incredible oneness of ensemble and intonation. While this is probably the best performance of the lot, it might not be the most convincing. For example, at the end of the work, rather than feeling like we’ve entered this world of darkness, Lindberg’s take sounds rather noble. Sundkvist, on the other hand, sacrifices (perhaps unintentionally?) a bit of Lindberg’s qualities of clarity and intonation but brings a fuller sound and does not shy away from the music’s dark and abrasive tendencies. 

While CPO has unquestionably made a huge contribution to the Pettersson discography, this particular recording just doesn’t cut it when compared to the rest of the competition. All the other bands perform this work in about 20 minutes; Goritzki adds about 3-4 minutes. As a result, the music plods a bit. However, at these tempos and with the chamber forces employed, there is definitely a sense of clarity, allowing Pettersson’s dense countrapuntal lines to register. In sum, I feel that this performance does go a bit against what Pettersson wanted, and with the other options mentioned above, I think fans of this work can pass this recording and still be spoiled for choice.

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