Thursday, March 10, 2011

Recordings: Concerto No. 2 for String Orchestra

Just like the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra, this piece has done surprisingly well on disc, even though this piece is, similar to its predecessor, anything but popular. What I would give for a third recording of the Symphony No. 6 (Mr. Lindberg?).

As I mentioned in my previous post, I find this piece less than convincing as a whole, and I have found it rather difficult to put together a meaningful comparison of the recordings available. I guess in my young “career” as a classical music writer I’m not sure how to compare performances of music that do not entirely click with me.

Nevertheless, I encourage readers to explore this work and share their comments. Here goes…

Concerto No. 2 for String Orchestra
Nordic Chamber Orchestra
Christian Lindberg, conductor

This really is a tough one. Similar to their performance of the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra, I think Lindberg and the NCO are almost victims of how good they are. This performance is highly polished and very well played. However, given the relative reduction in conflict in this music (and isn’t Pettersson all about conflict in the orchestral works?) I wonder if Lindberg’s approach is just too “nice.” This is especially apparent in the 1st movement, which to me almost sounds like it was played with classical-era lightness and transparency. The fragile beauty of the 2nd movement is sensitively executed in Lindberg’s hands (just listen to the pianissimo he gets from this band). In the 3rd movement Lindberg does start to dig in a bit, giving the music gruffness when required. Among the three recordings here, his Bartokian folk dance probably comes off the best. In the lyrical sections Lindberg also does well here, which is unsurprising given the high level of polish he brings to this music.

I cannot comfortably say that Lindberg’s take on this music really rises above or falls below his competition. As you will see below, each conductor brings particular strengths to this music, which differs from the others. Keep reading…

Concerto No. 2 for String Orchestra
Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss
Johannes Goritzki, conductor
CPO 999225

Unlike the performance of the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra by these same forces, here Goritzki does dig in, making this music sound more “Petterssonian” than it actually may be. For example, listen to how the cellos attack the F#-C-B-F# lick (1:17) in the first movement, which allows a greater contrast when the same gesture is repeated shortly after. The 2nd movement goes as well as Lindberg’s take. The 3rd movement, surprisingly, doesn’t work for me here. For one thing, Goritzki takes the longest compared to the others, and this movement lasts too long to begin with. Despite the fact that Goritzki isn’t afraid to dig into this music, his folk dance actually seems pretty tame compared to Lindberg.

Concerto No. 2 for String Orchestra
Musica Vitae
Petter Sundkvist, conductor
Caprice CAP21739

Although Sundkvist brings a similar level of polish to this music as Lindberg, one thing which really sticks out in this performance is the timing. It is hands down the quickest performance compared to the others (Sundkvist shaves off at least a minute and a half in the 2nd movement), which is a good thing considering how this music can sound unfocused at times. In the orchestral literature there are pieces which just need to be played short and sweet, and this approach yields dividends here.

Take the 2nd movement for example. Although there is an elusive beauty to this movement, and one may want to savor the many harmonic turns and subtle dissonances, the music does meander a bit. Here Sundkvist doesn’t waste any time and conducts as if the whole movement is just a giant prelude to that wonderful final resolution. The 3rd movement also benefits from this approach, although I wouldn’t mind him going a bit faster, but I can understand that the lyrical sections do need room to breathe.

Overall, I think Sundkvist has a slight edge here over the competition, but the other options mentioned above do adequate justice to this work, which is not necessarily Pettersson’s most inspired.

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