Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 8

Despite my reservations about this piece, I think it may be possible that this symphony might be another one of those works in the universe of classical music where inherent shortcomings can be overcome with a truly convincing performance. To me personally, Bruckner is a perfect example of this—most of his symphonies, unless conducted by someone who truly understands the Brucknerian idiom, can come across as interminable, flaccid affairs. However, when done right, they can be transcendent.

Coming back to Pettersson, then. There are actually four of recordings for this piece, but out of the three I’m reviewing here, if I had to pick one it would be Segerstam, hands down. But anyways, let’s go through the others a little bit.

Symphony No. 8
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Sergiu Comissiona, conductor
DG 2531 176

NOTE: The recording I listened to is actually Polar 289, but I assume it is exactly the same as the DG recording.

According to the RSPO historical archive, on 3 December 1975 Sergiu Comissiona performed this work during a guest appearance of the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra in Stockholm. Pettersson listened to the performance on the radio and declared that the interpretation was ideal, and that the broadcast tape could be used to make a commercial recording. The present recording was made on 27 and 31 October 1977, so unless Comissiona’s interpretation differs dramatically from his Göteborg performances, one can assume that the performance here is what the composer intended.

Before getting into any details I should mention some issues I encountered while listening to this record. Unfortunately my record player rotates just a hair too slow, making everything sound a half-step flat. This created two problems: first of all, it made an already slow-ish interpretation even slower, and second, having perfect pitch I nearly went crazy looking at the score, seeing one thing and hearing another.

Having said all this, Comissiona really does lead an excellent performance—kudos as well to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Particularly noteworthy is Comissiona’s emphasis on the middle voices, especially in the opening section of the work. Just like his later recording effort of the Symphony No. 7, Comissiona really draws out the ideal Pettersson orchestral sound—listen to the how he moves between brass and woodwinds in the transitional chorals in opening section, for example. In the “movement” proper Comissiona moves very deliberately, creating a sense of reluctance despite the escalating frenzy. The low brass are eruptive and the percussion terrifying (although I could use more tam-tam), which are lacking in the other two recordings. Also listen to the truly evil sounding solo string slashes in the second “movement,” and the following section which is much more menacing in Comissiona’s hands.

Unfortunately, despite being an excellent performance and most likely having the composer’s own stamp of approval, I think Comissiona’s slow tempos really detract from what could have been the most convincing argument for this work. Of the three recordings, his second movement is the slowest and his first takes a minute and a half longer than Segerstam. Accordingly, the opening sections of both “movements,” though played very well, tend to drag. The already protracted second movement unfortunately seemed interminable at times. Who knows, maybe this is all exactly what Pettersson wanted.

Symphony No. 8
RSO Berlin
Thomas Sanderling, conductor
CPO 999 085-2

Unfortunately, like several of the non-Francis recordings of CPO’s Pettersson cycle, Sanderling’s effort in this symphony is not really competitive, although I would say that this performance went better than Albrecht in the Symphony No. 7.

Like Comissiona, Albrecht decides to go the slow route in this piece. Shaky intonation by the bassoons gets things going. From then on, some ensemble issues and a sense of unfamiliarity permeate this performance. Unlike the perfectly blended sound that Segerstam and Comissiona find, here individual instruments come out a bit more than is preferable.

However, there are some good things going on as well. The march section of the opening, though slower than Segerstam, does benefit from the more prominent percussion. This is also an advantage in the proper of the second “movement” where one feels more present in the music, increasing its intensity despite the slow-ish tempo. This is in contrast to the “safe distance” feeling I get from Segerstam. Also listen to the increased presence of Sanderling’s rapid-fire horns and trumpets in this section. 

Symphony No. 8
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam, conductor
CPO 999 085-2

Segerstam easily makes the most convincing argument for this piece, but he cannot quite overcome the work’s shortcomings to make this symphony something I’ll regularly come back to. It certainly helps that Segerstam’s timings most closely approximate Pettersson's score indications: first part,19:39 and second part 26:10 (Pettersson asks for approximately 20 and 25 minutes, respectively).

Like his recording of the Symphony No. 7, Segerstam has his band whipped into top shape while bringing a keen ear for instrumental detail but only in the proper orchestral context—in other words, perfectly blended sound. Listen to the beautiful woodwind/strings chord at the start of the march in the opening section of the first “movement,” with just the right amount of weight in the attack before fading to piano. Or listen to the clarinet/viola section solo, right after the climax of the central march in the opening section: clearly present, but not overpowering above the fragile string background.

Maybe this is more an issue with the recording itself rather than the interpretive or artistic quality, but I find the sound to be somewhat distant and lacking in impact. As this recording was my first exposure to this piece, this might explain why I feel a certain amount of emotional detachment in this symphony compared to its predecessor. Now, if only someone can make a new recording with the intensity of Comissiona and the swift tempos of Segerstam...

13 comments:

  1. Symphony No. 8 was the first Pettersson symphony I got to know (this was more than 26 years ago). Until now I appreciate this piece without any reservation. For me it was (and still is) a climax of my entire musical experience. Admittedly, this symphony's structure is peculiar und not completely convincing by traditional standards. Apparently, Pettersson was ruled by an uncompromising personal existentialism almost incomprehensible for the mentality of our time. He probably was also a kind of neurotic, a factor that lead him to musical excesses and hysteria. From the viewpoint of technical fulfillment and architectural accomplishment Eduard Tubin and Vagn Holmboe may be the greater symphonists (just remember Robert Layton's statements). Notwithstanding Pettersson's music is much more memorable, much more impressive - hence it is (despite of some deficiencies and some peculiarities of his musical world) appropriate to call him the greatest of the mentioned composers (and probably also the greatest symphonist since Gustav Mahler). He will ever be a most touching and viscerally exciting voice in the world of classical music.
    Frankly, I am a Segerstam fan, but his recording of Symphony No. 8 seems emotionally detached (at least to a large extent). Therefore it is ultimately unsatisfactory. In my opinion, Thomas Sanderling's recording with its combination of grandeur, commitment und technical accomplishment is the most convincing execution so far. It will be hard to get ahead of it.

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  2. I think that if you want to put a label on Pettersson's personality, he probably had Asperger syndrome or traits of autism. That would explain why he was such an outsider, and also why he dared to compose in such an uncompromising way.

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    1. Pettersson certainly did not suffer from Asperger syndrome or autism. He was physically incapacitated by the curse of Rheumatoid Arthritis. This meant that he had to write 10 long symphonies entirely by dictation. This is an incredible achievement of utmost genius. He never gave up on his life's mission to compose and compose onwards until he was finally taken away from us by liver cancer. He left us a remarkable legacy in music, and like Beethoven and Mozart, he received scant recognition or appreciation while he was alive.

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  3. Julio, I totally agree with you about how Pettersson's music follows its own rules and may be, on the surface at the very least, less than convincing by conventional standards. I talked about this in my post about the Symphony No. 9 as well. However, I respectfully disagree with you on Sanderling's recording. Yes, Segerstam does seem emotionally detached, but I find Sanderling's take to have enough technical shortcomings (listen to the mess before the big climax in the second part, for example) that really detracts from what could have been a fine performance.

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  4. While relistening to Thomas Sanderling's recording of this great symphony after some years, I have to concede there are some shortcomings in the orchestral performance. However the lapses are not so serious that they lead to a disqualification of the recording. One also has to take into account, this is the recording of a single live performance (so without the possibility of cutting-out the lapses and replacing them by corresponding sections from other performances). But what is more decisive is that Thomas Sanderling's recording absolutely has the passionate spirit appropriate to Pettersson.
    The realization of Pettersson's music generally presents a serious problem owing to the enormous demands of these scores. Comissiona once said in an interview he needed much more rehearsal time to prepare a Pettersson symphony than to prepare a Mahler or Bruckner symphony. The whole affair will become an even greater problem if the orchestra is not a first-rate band.
    By the way there is a performance of Symphony No. 8 by the Chicago Symphony Orchstra, conducted by Varujan Kojian (1982-11-26). It should be interesting to get to know it.

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  5. For me, this is probably the finest Pettersson symphony but no.7 runs it very, very close. The Baltimore / Comissiona version is outstanding and is one of my eight 'desert island discs'. The Swedish Radio SO / Comissiona no. 7 is another.
    Can anyone explain to me the neglect of these great works in England?

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  6. My first (semivirtual) experience of Allan's music dates back to 1978, as I sat in in the public library of Portland (Oregon) and read Paul Rapoport's book OPUS EST. I was fascinated and copied down the excerpts from AP's SECOND. My first acoustic experience: Seattle, April 1981, the DG Comissiona LP of the EIGHTH. I was high on mescaline and ... hmm ... "strongly imprinted" by this remarkable work. Yes, AP repeats a lot, but the repetitions functioned in a completely different way from those of Reich or Riley or Glass ... and the masterly crash into the abyss in the first movement recalled the best of Alban Berg. A couple of weeks later I took a motorcycle trip down to San Luis Obispo (California) and experienced Pettersson's motifs continuously weaving their way into the two-cylinder four-stroke thunder of the Norton 850. I was further imprinted. Since then I have come to intimately know the score (Nordiska/Hansen/Fazer/Gehrmans, not expensive) and find the Segesrstam/Norrköpping recording to be THE BEST! Segerstam emphasises the voices and details that go "against the flow" and realizes the authentic modernity and highly individual stance of this music. @ Derek Bacon: these "great works" are neglected not only in England because AP is a composer who "fell through the cracks in the floor": his music is complex and demanding but doesn't fit into the accepted and supported patterns of the late 20th century.

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    1. Let's remember that the only recording of the tortuous number 13 was performed by the BBC Scottish Orchestra. And what a magnificent account they make of it!

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  7. I actually got to know the work through the Albrech "live" recording... I suppose its rather distant sound disqualifies from competing with the versions you deal with above, but the timings suggest--though don't guarantee--an interpretive approach along the lines of Comissiona's.

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  8. I have the broadcast tape of Allan Pettersson's great and vastly under-rated Symphony No. 8 (1968 - 1969) by the Chicago Symphony Orchstra, conducted by Varujan Kojian from 1982 which is far superior to all the other recordings available and it is tragic that the Chicao Symphony Orchestra have not released it yet. I think if Martin Heidegger had heard Allan Pettersson or Anton Bruckner he would have undestood the ontology of time.

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  9. Is there any way you could upload this version onto YouTube?

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  10. The Kojian performance may be downloaded here: http://www.mediafire.com/download/1466ki17r1m6zp0/PtSy8.zip

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