Friday, March 25, 2011

Recordings: Concerto No. 3 for String Orchestra

Concerto No. 3 for String Orchestra
Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss
Johannes Goritzki, conductor
CPO 999225

Concerto No. 3 for String Orchestra
Nordic Chamber Orchestra
Christian Lindberg, conductor

Mesto (from Concerto No. 3 for String Orchestra)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Stig Westerberg, conductor
SCD 1012

According to the CPO liner notes, in the score (which I unfortunately do not have at this moment) Pettersson specifies a total performance time of approximately 49 minutes. He even takes this one step further, giving extremely precise timings for each of the individual movements: I, 14:10; II, 24:43; and III, 9:17. Funny enough, even though Pettersson specifies pretty unequivocally what he wants, none of the recordings discussed below strictly adhere to the composer’s intentions.

I really wish I could be more enthusiastic about CPO cycle of the string concertos—after all, it was the first digital cycle of these works, in a convenient two-disc package with excellent liner notes. Probably the most problematic issue with this recording is Goritzki’s approach to central Mesto movement—which is long enough as it is. Goritzki takes an almost interminable 29:13 with this movement, which is almost 5 minutes longer than Pettersson’s indication. The repeated notes, which play such an important role here, particularly in the transitions to the lyrical islands, sound like walking in place or in circles. Lindberg and Westerberg, on the other hand, use the repeated notes as means of arriving at a destination; they have a clearer sense of direction.

I’ll concede that Gortizki’s strings are fuller, richer, and have more direct presence, which pays dividends particularly in the many passages of intense yearning. However, this approach sometimes backfires. For example, listen to the passage for solo strings in the Mesto movement. Here we have music of painful simplicity, of purity. In Goritzki’s hands it sounds like his band has just come back from a recording of Strauss’ Metamorphosen or something—they just sound too rich and buttery for this music.

Lindberg’s take with this music is, unsurprisingly, similar to his earlier efforts with these same forces in the first two string concertos: extremely polished playing, great ensemble, clarity, and a bit of emotional distance. This approach works quite well in this piece, with its relatively lighter textures and somewhat detached lyricism. Compare this with the results Lindberg achieved in the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra, which sounded too tame and unabrasive.

In the 1st movement, Lindberg shaves off about a minute compared to Goritzky, and this makes a noticeable difference, as the music in this movement really needs to move a bit (I really wonder what this would sound like if someone took Pettersson’s timings literally). Even though the passages of great yearning don’t work quite as well with Lindberg’s detached approach, overall this movement just feels more cohesive compared to the Goritzki’s slower tread. 

It really is a pity that Westerberg did not record more of Pettersson’s large orchestral works. I have been very impressed with everything I have heard of his thus far, and comparing the three versions of the Mesto movement I will have to say that Westerberg takes the prize. He finds the perfect balance between fullness of sound, necessary for all those passages of yearning (I’m guessing the SRSO has more strings compared to the competition), while maintaining a certain amount of “pure information” objectiveness.  One moment worth special mention is the passage for solo strings—Westerberg has the front desk players play without vibrato, with pure tones almost reminiscent of early music. I was completely blown away when I first heard this; it just seems ideal for Pettersson’s message here: consoling, detached, heartbroken, purifying, all at the same time. Although Westerberg did not record the whole piece, you must hear his take on this movement. 


  1. The Goritzki recordings really have some serious shortcomings. And I agree with you, that Stig Westerberg takes the prize. He was an extremely gifted conductor with a special feeling for Pettersson's language. By the way, he was also extraordinary in conducting music of other composers. E. g. one should pay attention to his interpretation of Gösta Nystroem, who was an eminent Swedish composer, too.

  2. Erratum: BIS-CD-1590 is Concerto No. 3 not No. 2

  3. Corrected. Thanks for noticing!