Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 5

Symphony No. 5
Berliner Sibelius Orchester
Andreas Peer Kahler, conductor
Bluebell ABCD 015

Symphony No. 5
Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Moshe Atzmon, conductor
Symphony No. 5
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken
Alun Francis
CPO 999 284-2

To my knowledge, the Bluebell disc is the first commercially available recording of this work, which is quite special considering the forces involved in its production. I was originally going to skip this recording and focus my review on the two discs involving professional forces. However, amazon.com is offering this work at the absolutely ridiculous price of just $0.89 for an mp3 download, so I couldn’t pass it up.

The Berliner Sibelius Orchester (BSO) was founded by Andreas Peer Kahler with the intention of performing works by, you guessed it, Nordic composers. They are a non-professional band which gives just a couple of concerts each year. A few years ago I had the opportunity to see them perform Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, just a few days after watching their professional colleagues in the Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin in the same work. It was immediately clear that the BSO is not a professional group, although their playing was certainly more than passable. The same goes for their recording of Pettersson’s Symphony No. 5.

One distinguishing feature of Pettersson’s orchestral works is the extreme technical demands on the players. Unfortunately, this orchestra just doesn’t have the collective chops to pull this piece off, especially when compared to the competition. Shaky intonation and a somewhat overly dominant trumpet start the work off. Ensemble issues begin the symphony proper. The strings do not have the power or confidence to be sufficiently heard in the brass-dominated passages.

It certainly is not my intention to make my review of this recording a laundry list of the performance’s deficiencies. After all, if my orchestra decided to play this piece I would very enthusiastically be of part of it, even if our end product is totally unrecognizable (which would most likely be the case). Furthermore, if there are no regional restrictions to keep you from downloading it from amazon, you owe it to yourself as a Pettersson fan to give this version a try. I certainly do not regret it.

Moving on to the professional competition then—having listened to Atzmon’s and Francis’ recordings for years I still have not picked up on any significant musical or interpretive insights which sets them apart from each other. Even their timings are almost exactly the same. However, I keep on coming back to Atzmon’s recording simply because of how it sounds and “feels.” I know this is very vague but allow me to explain.

To my ears at least, Pettersson’s music requires a certain sharpness and coldness to do full justice to his particular expressive world. Occasionally this comes at the expense of technical quality, but not necessarily. To give an example from a previous review, as much as I liked Francis’ take of the Symphony No. 2, the raw sound and visceral approach of Westerberg feels more representative of Pettersson’s unique style. The same goes here. Listen to the stabbing and incisive attacks from the violas in the symphony opening. The low brass crescendos have a hard-edged quality to them, as opposed to the more burnished sound Francis gets. The timpani attacks and swells on D at the symphony’s breaking point are far more decisive and emphatic in Atzmon’s hands. These are the kinds of details which keep me coming back to Atzmon’s recording.

Having said that, there is certainly nothing obvious which is deficient in Francis’ version, and there will be listeners who prefer this recording over the other. Bottom line, you cannot go wrong with either Francis or Atzmon, and Kahler is definitely worth a listen, especially considering how inexpensive it is.

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