Friday, February 11, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 2

Symphony No. 2
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Alun Francis
CPO 999281  

Symphony No. 2
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Stig Westerberg
SCD 1012

When I began this survey of Pettersson's orchestral works I was not really looking forward to the first two symphonies--2 and 3--as I initially found them elusive and really never listened to them much in the 10 or so years that I've owned the recordings. At this time I was happy that I only had one recording to listen to of the 2nd (BBCSSO/Francis), and I could just sort of get it over with, and move on. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, after this most recent round of listening the 2nd Symphony has become one of my favorite Pettersson symphonies, and I was actually a little disappointed that I only had one recording to listen to (Lindberg recently recorded Symphonies 1 and 2 in Norrköping for BIS, but no word on when it will be released). I was fortunate enough to have the Allan Pettersson 100 sampler CD, distributed by Gehrmans, which had an excerpt of Westerberg's recording of the 2nd. Listening to this brief excerpt I knew right away that Westerberg's take on this piece was noticeably different than Francis', and it would be worth my time to hunt down the full recording. 

Thanks to the excellent local resources, I was able to find the Westerberg recording in the library of the Helsinki Conservatory (not the same as the Sibelius Academy), and I am happy to include it in this post. 

I'll probably come back to this theme over and over again throughout this survey, but these two recordings nicely illustrate a dilemma when performing Pettersson: technical polish and musicality over kick-to-the-gut emotionality and viscerality? As you may recall from an earlier post, I actually favored the less technically sound performance of the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra because it sounded a bit rougher than the competition. This kinda makes me think of Michael Tilson Thomas in his Keeping Score Documentary series when he shares with the San Franscisco Symphony what he thinks often goes wrong with Tchaikovsky 4, a warhorse if there ever was one: "people just want to bash the hell out of it."

In the slow opening section I cannot hear too many obvious differences between the two, particularly in choice of tempo, although Westerberg does coax more incisive attacks from the brass. Once the symphony proper begins, however, the two conductors take pretty different paths with this music.

Overall, Francis leads a much more disciplined and musical approach to this symphony. The orchestra certainly plays better, and they have a much fuller, cleaner sound compared to the SRSO. In the denser passages the individual lines come across more clearly, allowing one to better relish all the things that Pettersson packs in. This, of course, might have partly to do with the recording quality, but it is clear that the BBCSSO is technically more secure. 

Francis chooses a slower tempo (about 47 minutes total compared to Westerberg's 42) but manages to achieve the feat of tying all the symphony's many disparate sections together in a coherent package. His take with this piece gives the impression of each building block leading inevitably to the next, despite the fact that Pettersson moves between extremes in this piece sometimes quite abruptly.

In Westerberg's recording, once the symphony proper begins you can immediately hear a roughness to the SRSO, particularly the strings. However, to my ears it soon became clear that the raw quality of the SRSO's playing, in addition to Westerberg's faster tempo, was actually quite flattering to this music. The eruptive percussion and biting brass, particularly the trombones, made this performance more visceral and exciting compared to Francis. In fact, if my first exposure to this piece was through this recording, I might have taken to it sooner just simply because Westerberg gives us that kick to the gut.

On the other hand, despite the faster tempo, Westerberg does tend to make the divisions between individual sections a bit more obvious, making the music seem more episodic and less coherent. Some gestures are a bit over-emphasized. In this regard Francis has the upper hand here.

I realize that talking about all the qualities of the Westerberg recording might be a moot point, because I don't think this recording is in print anymore. However, if you are a serious fan of this work, try to locate the Westerberg. Francis certainly make a better case for this work musically, but Westerberg is definitely more exciting.


  1. "In fact, if my first exposure to this piece was through this recording, I might have taken to it sooner just simply because Westerberg gives us that kick to the gut." - This was the case with me, and again and again I have to realize, that Stig Westerberg really was an outstanding conductor. However, I like Alun Francis' recording, too. Furthermore I've a live recording of Symphony No. 2 with SRSO under Tor Mann (also interesting as far as I remember).

  2. Julio,

    Thanks for the comments. Don't worry, I plan to see this project through to the end, even though it might not be "enjoyable" in the conventional sense. Where did you get the Tor Mann recording of Symphony No. 2? What label is it on?

  3. I once got the tape from an acquaintance. It seems to be a recording of the broadcast of the premiere (Stockholm, 9 May 1954). The sound quality is very poor. Obviously, it wasn't released commercially. I listened to it in parts yesterday and found the interpretation similiar to Stig Westerberg's.