Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 6

Symphony No. 6
Norrköping Symphony Orchester
Okko Kamu, conductor
CBS Masterworks 76553

Symphony No. 6
Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin
Manfred Trojahn, conductor
CPO 999 124-2 

To be honest, as dear as this music is to me I’m actually kinda happy that after this post I’ll be moving on to the next symphony. Over the past few weeks I have been listening to this piece with a frequency which defines the word “unhealthy”, and lately I’ve put solo Bach on my iPod in an attempt to purify my musical mind. One of the most unsettling and disturbing experiences of my entire life listening to classical music is having a sleepless night with Pettersson’s Symphony No. 6 running incessantly through my mind. Well, the first time I heard Shosty’s Symphony No. 14 in concert comes in a close second place.

Anyway, this is a recording review, so let’s get to it. The only currently commercially available recording of this incredible work is on CPO, with Manfred Trojahn conducting the Deutsches-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin. I don’t mean to be dismissive of this important CD, but given the competition, the merits of this recording can be summed up pretty quickly:

1. Better recorded sound.
2. Technically speaking, the DSO Berlin plays generally better, although this might have to do with the slower tempo (see below).

This takes us to the other recording of this review, with Okko Kamu and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, on a long-gone CBS LP. This recording was taken from a live performance of the work and it is on almost every count superior to the CPO, with the exceptions mentioned above. If you do a little internet research there should be copies floating around; I found mine on eBay over 10 years ago. I think someone even digitized it and posted it online…

The first time I heard the Kamu, after having owned Trojahn’s recording for at least a year, was a revelation. One of the most obvious differences is tempo. In the score, Pettersson indicates a performance time of 54-56 minutes. Kamu is spot-on, around 53:30, while Trojahn takes over 60. This makes a huge difference in the relentless, conflict-laden first half, where the music should feel like a frantic, desperate ride. At Trojahn’s tempo the sense of conflict is still there (it’s written into the music, after all), but you are not left gasping for breath waiting for, and dreading, the next wave of pain.

Then there is the orchestra. Yes, the NSO’s playing, particularly the violins, is quite a bit scrappier than the DSO Berlin. Then again, at Kamu’s tempo there is a sense of holding on for dear life, and technical perfection might actually take away from that feeling. I have to—no—I must give special mention to the horns here. Pettersson’s writing for them in this work (and in many others) is relentlessly demanding: near non-stop playing, large leaps, high tessituras, and the power to cut through the full orchestra. The NSO horn section has it all, and even at the end of this gargantuan work they are still hitting their notes (this was a live recording, no there were no breaks or retakes!). So, a word to horn players, if any of you ever take a cellist seriously: put aside all those Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel excerpts you’ve been practicing your whole life and start practicing this work.

Maybe this is just an issue of microphone placement, but Trojahn’s percussion sounds too distant, if not too tame. Kamu’s percussion is far more present, but they are also much more menacing, brutal, assertive, and eruptive. Listen to the tam-tam in this recording, it’s like boiling acid to the face. These are the kind of things this music requires.

Kamu is also superior in terms of how he blends the instruments throughout the doublings. For example, in the final pages, Trojahn’s solo trumpet overshadows the violins and bit and is consequently too, well, trumpet-y for my taste. Same goes for the clarinets and violas in the preceeding lyrical island; the clarinet sound tends to stick out a bit too much.

Anyone who loves this symphony owes it to themselves to hear the Kamu, if they have not already. It is hands down, over 30 years later, the recording to have.

So, Mr. Christian Lindberg, the bar has been set high. You will have the same orchestra at your disposal. I am eagerly waiting to hear the results.

1 comment:

  1. Julio,
    Living in Finland I have had the opportunity to see Okko Kamu conduct many times. I even found him on Facebook and told him Pettersson enthusiasts continue to treasure his recording of the Symphony No. 6. However, there are other examples of conductors who premiere and/or record works of lesser-known composers, only to pretty much abandon them later on. For example, I don't think Herbert Blomstedt has much interest in Pettersson after his recording of the Concerto No. 2 for Violin--I imagine he'll be happy spending the rest of his life with Beethoven and Brucker.