Monday, October 17, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 11

Symphony No. 11
NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover
Alun Francis, conductor
CPO 999 285-2
Symphony No.11
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam, conductor
Francis’ Pettersson recordings for CPO have always been more than good, if not just a little less than great. However, coincidence or not, I seem to prefer his competition when he has it: Segerstam on Symphonies 3 and 10, Westerberg on Symphony No. 2, and Atzmon on Symphony No. 5. I am pleased to say that on this work, Francis has on display many strengths which allow me to confidently say (well, at least in my opinion) that his account is the one you want.

Like the previous entries in his cycle, Segerstam brings to the table great orchestral playing, a lot of surface excitement, and extra-sharp attacks from brass and percussion. However, as great as this is, I found that with this approach the symphony continued to elude me, while Francis’ approach made the music much more communicative from the outset, clarifying the somewhat elusive message of this work.

Similar to the Symphony No. 10, Segerstam is a bit faster than Francis, about 24:40 to 25:30, respectively (in the score Pettersson calls for a duration of 24 minutes, so both are pretty close). Despite the slightly shorter duration I find my attention flagging with Segerstam, while Francis does a much better job of keeping me engaged.

Ok, so what is so great about Francis’ take here? Although Francis and the NDR Hannover sound rougher and less secure in this music compared to their Swedish peers, and the brass attacks can sound quite shy (compared to Segerstam’s terrifying snarls) pretty much everything else goes right. For starters, there is a better sense of balance, particularly in the strings and woodwinds compared to the brass. This is clear from the outset. For example, listen to how Francis brings out the flute and piccolo counter melodies against the viola section solo at the beginning. This makes the “false” notes come out more clearly and dare I say sound “natural.” At the conclusion of the opening section Francis brings out the rumblings from the lower strings and bassoons (3 after rehearsal 5), really drawing us in to this new world.

Bringing out all the interesting string writing and clearly defining Pettersson’s rhythmic ideas is something which Francis emphasizes throughout his reading. Overall, I get the strong impression that Francis is letting the music itself generate the tension, and letting the music itself “make sense,” for lack of a better term. At the conclusion of this work, by no means a real resolution, Francis adds just the right amount of weight to the final trumpet push, giving us the feeling that this is the end—no questions at all—to this particular journey. It is about as satisfactory an ending as one can achieve with this work.

With Pettersson, you really cannot go wrong when either Segerstam or Francis are on the podium (and there are usually few other options!), but for this elusive work, go for Francis the first time around.

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