In this review I’ll be discussing the two available recordings of this piece, on CPO and BIS. For fans of this work, it must have been a strange and exciting thing in the late nineties, going from having no available recordings to having two high quality performances released pretty much within a year of each other.
Symphony No. 10
NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover
Alun Francis, conductor
CPO 999 285-2
Similar to his other installments in the CPO cycle, Francis leads a performance which is never less than good, although he falls short on a few points compared to Segerstam. First of all, the NDR Radiophilharmonie sounds like it is really struggling with the enormous technical challenges which this piece presents, although this is sometimes an asset (see below). At approximately 27 minutes, Francis is noticeably slower than Segerstam (25 minutes), and despite the brevity and intense material concentration of this piece, at times this performance gets just a little bogged down. The trombones and percussion, so crucial in this piece, are rather timid and lacking in power. In general, the brass attacks have a soft, almost polite edge to them.
However, this performance has an edge over Segerstam in a few areas. Despite the slower tempo, the NDR band sounds noticeably more uncomfortable with this music compared to their Swedish counterparts, and in some ways this increases the sense of desperation and chaos. Take the strings, for example, who sound as if they are walking a tightrope in a hurricane. Francis’ tempo also pays dividends in at 5 after rehearsal 46 (track 3, 3:05), allowing the sense of impending defeat and fear to register with greater impact. Despite the relatively timid percussion, Francis really brings out the sixteenth note runs in the celeste and xylophone at 1 after rehearsal 42 (track 3, 1:53), which is a nice detail that is lost in Segerstam’s recording.
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Segerstam brings his trademark “clean and mean” approach to this performance: clarity of orchestral detail, sharp brass and percussion attacks, and rapid tempos. The Norrköping symphony, by no means a household name on the world orchestral stage, plays with unbelievable virtuosity and confidence. Listen to the brass, who play at full bore pretty much from beginning to end without any loss of power or impact. The percussion are menacingly present, in particular the rumbling tenor drum (I’ll admit I could use more bass drum and tam-tam). Or how about the chilling section at 4 before rehearsal 54 (14:08), where Segerstam really does make us feel cold, alone, and abandoned.
Despite the excellent playing I find this recording to be somewhat lacking in impact as well—perhaps this might be a function of the distant soundstage. Considering how dense Pettersson’s orchestration is, this might have been a conscious decision made by the engineers to allow the overall picture to register at a slight loss of presence.
If I had to choose just one recording it would be Segerstam. However, Francis’ take is also worth your attention.