Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 7

The Symphony No. 7 is, to the best of my knowledge, the most recorded work in Pettersson’s entire output. In fact, this work might be the among the most recorded symphonies written in the second half of the twentieth century. After Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Vaughan Williams, who else wrote a numbered symphony during this time period that has fared so well on disc? If you are a fan of this work, you are truly spoiled for choice. Now, if we could just get another recording of say Schnittke’s Symphony No. 3, Tubin’s Symphony No. 8, or maybe Saygun’s Symphony No. 5…

If we count Lindberg’s live recording with the Guerzenich Orchester, we have a total of five recordings of this work. Now, just because one is spoiled for choice, it does not mean that all of the options are necessarily worth your while. With so many recordings available I thought it would be informative to start out with some timing comparisons, and then I’ll go through each recording in a little more detail.

Below I’ve indicated the approximate time when each conductor reaches a specific point in the work. 4 after Rehearsal 3 is the start of the symphony proper, 2 after Rehearsal 30 is the major climax, and Total means the total performance time.

Conductor        4 after Rehearsal 3    2 after Rehearsal 30  Total
Dorati               3:02                             14:58                           40:20
Comissiona     2:17                             15:21                           42:00
Albrecht            2:40                             16:32                           44:35
Segerstam       2:57                             15:40                           46:26
Lindberg           2:52                             15:40                           44:12

Symphony No. 7
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Antal Doráti, conductor
Swedish Society Discophil SCD 1002

Dorati’s recording of the Symphony No. 7 carries a mark of authenticity as the first recording of this work, most likely prepared in close collaboration with the composer. Despite the authoritative nature of this document, it doesn’t quite compare to Comissiona’s or Segerstam’s subsequent efforts.

The introductory section is played with such clinical purposefulness that the darker, more oppressive aspects of this opening seem to be left out a bit. To me it sounds like a stoic, methodical tread to the upcoming conflict. Looking at the timings above, you can see that Dorati reaches the major climax well before everyone else, and this is quite noticeable—parts of the symphony proper really fly by, perhaps more so than they should. When the tempo slows down again, namely at the full orchestra chorale before the major climax, the music again sounds extremely purposeful.

Overall, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic plays very well. The sound is really quite dry, but that is not unexpected given the age of the recording. The woodwinds do have this weird watery vibrato at times, and the trombone glissandi sound a bit sleazy at times—maybe they were playing Lady Macbeth of Mtensk recently or something. Although there are better recordings available, this version is nevertheless important for its historical value. 

Symphony No. 7
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Sergui Comissiona, conductor
CAP 21411
If there is such a thing as a desert island recording of this work, it might well be the Comissiona. To my ears at least, in many ways Comissiona brings out the ideal Pettersson orchestral sound. Listen to how Comissiona finds the perfect blend between instruments in Pettersson’s doublings—a unified sound, yet the individual character of each instrument comes through. Also notice the tuba in the symphony opening (one measure after rehearsal 3), or how the b min trombone motive is played with just the right combination of distance and presence. The ascending journey to the sun after the major climax is a real struggle, and the following section has wonderfully rich, yet restrained strings and present, but shadowy yet clear percussion.

Excellent playing throughout by the SRSO (from a live performance!), good recorded sound, somewhat skimpy notes, and an odd coupling (Mozart Bassoon Concerto) round out this package. A must for Pettersson fans, and anyone looking for an introduction to the composer.

Symphony No. 7
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
Gerd Albrecht, conductor
CPO 999 190-2
After one listen to Albrecht’s version I found myself unconvinced, and after closer examination several years later I still find this recording lacking in several aspects. It is rather strange that most of the reviews I have seen regarding this recording are generally positive. One of the first things that I noticed was the surprisingly rough playing of the orchestra. This is the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg, which I believe is the pit band of the Hamburg Opera. These guys are not hack jobs, so I was really surprised at how technically unconfident they seemed here. For example, listen to the intonation of the violins at the first climax of the symphony proper, or the poor ensemble of the violas, horns, and clarinets playing the chromatic motive shortly thereafter.

The other major issue here is Albrecht’s inability to sustain the music’s tension at his choices of tempo. If you look at the timings above, Albrecht is on the slow side, although not nearly as slow as Segerstam (see below). The symphony begins promisingly enough, with a real sense of intense concentration, to paraphrase Mark Shanks, but to my ears there is a clear sense of something amiss. Once the symphony proper gets going, Albrecht sounds a bit lumbering and clumsy rather than focused and desperate. Maybe this could have been something if Albrecht had time to take the band back to the studio and tidy some things up, but it is possible to produce an amazing live recording of this work (Comissiona, see above).

Nevertheless, serious collectors or fans of this work should at least be familiar with Albrecht’s take. It comes with easily the best liner notes of the available recordings, and despite the lack of coupling, it can be purchased quite inexpensively from CPO.

Symphony No. 7
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam, conductor
Segerstam’s take on this work would be my second desert island choice, although I would be more inclined to call it a tie. Like Segerstam’s other installments in his unfortunately incomplete cycle, orchestral detail and clarity come to the fore. Despite the fact that Segerstam is easily the slowest compared to the competition, you never get the sense that the music drags or has lost its focus.

Some highlights of this recording include the real sense of anticipation before the major climax, the very deliberate (although not quite as strained as Comissiona) ascent to the following sunrise, and the beautiful string playing in the following section, and especially in the lyrical island, which is played so beautifully and delicately almost to the point of sounding naïve. Although the liner notes say otherwise I do think Segerstam brings out the work’s tragic aspects, in particular the lengthy episode before the lyrical island. Excellent sound, probably the best of all the available recordings, and top-notch playing by Segerstam’s Norrkoping band (this was a studio recording, so they could have fixed things in the studio!).

Symphony No. 7
Gürzenich Orchester Köln
Christian Lindberg, conductor
The final recording in the Symphony No. 7 sweepstakes is the most recent, from Christian Lindberg and the Gürzenich Orchester Köln, taken from a live recording on 20 June 2010. I am not sure if this recording is widely available for purchase—check out the Gürzenich Orchester’s iTunes site and maybe you’ll have some luck.

Anyhow, Lindberg cut his Pettersson teeth on the string concertos so I was expecting him to be able to put on a convincing performance. While I think Lindberg has a convincing conception of how he wants the music to go, his band unfortunately was not able to follow him all the way. For example, listen to how Lindberg builds up the climaxes in the first half of the symphony: steady, inexorable treads of ever increasing intensity until the tension breaks into a climax, which unfortunately are quite sloppy in this recording. The arrival of the major climax is really something, like getting hit face first with a Brucknerian “wall of sound.” Lindberg, like Segerstam, really brings out a sense of tragedy before the lyrical island.

All in all, Lindberg’s live performance is certainly preferable to Albrecht’s, but maybe with tightened ensemble and better intonation this could really have been something.


  1. Here is the "Programmheft" of Lindberg's concert with Gürzenich Orchestra Köln on 20 June 2010 (containing Pettersson's 7th):

  2. Well done, Derek. Albrecht’s version actually isn't really competitive. However there could be some different opinions about Dorati’s and Comissiona’s recordings:


    "After Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Vaughan Williams, who else wrote a numbered symphony during this time period that has fared so well on disc?"

    An astonishing observation, partially correct, but I think, there are some symphonies that have fared as well or better on disc:
    - William Walton: Symphony No. 2
    - K. A. Hartmann: Symphony No. 2 ('Adagio')
    - Gorecki: Symphony No. 3 ('Symphony of sorrowful Songs')
    - Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 3
    - Henri Dutileux: Symphony No. 1
    - Henri Dutileux: Symphony No. 2
    - Witold Lutosławski: Symphony No. 2
    - Witold Lutosławski: Symphony No. 3


  3. Julio,

    Thanks for pointing out all these other symphonies, and the gaps in my knowledge!