Friday, August 24, 2012

Recordings: Symphony No. 15

Symphony No. 15
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam, conductor 

Symphony No. 15
DSO Berlin
Peter Ruzicka, conductor
CPO 999 095-2 

I think I’ve said this before...the CPO Pettersson series is invaluable and I thank the gods of the classical music record industry that this cycle exists and is readily available. However, when CPO has Swedish competition in the world of Pettersson recordings, the Swedes pretty much always win.

The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra does not have a world-renowned reputation by any standard, but whenever Segerstam is up on the podium conducting this band in Pettersson, amazing things happen. The recording of this work, and especially that of the Symphony No. 10, are testament to this.

Similar to just about every Pettersson symphony, the demands on the orchestral musicians are extreme. In the score Pettersson indicates a performance time of 31 minutes, which might be near impossible for the string players to execute (unless they fake a lot—see below), and Pettersson was a string player so he should have known what he was doing. Segerstam takes about 32:20, and Ruzicka over 38. Comissiona’s performance (not commercially available, so I won’t be reviewing it here) takes just under 38. The fact that Comissiona, who would otherwise be a trustworthy Pettersson interpreter, takes 7 minutes over Pettersson’s recommendation must mean that the score is unplayable at Pettersson’s tempi, right?

Ruzicka goes to great lengths in the liner notes of his recording to justify his choice of tempi. He cites a passage for violins—one before rehearsal 11 if you have the score, about 3:27 for Segerstam and 4:13 (track 1) for Ruzicka, which is unplayable at Pettersson’s prescribed tempo. At this point we are in Tempo II (half note = 48) and what Pettersson has written really is unplayable. Rhythmically, I had to subdivide in sixteenths to figure out what was going on. Then on top of that there are these 4-note grace-note runs which Pettersson sticks between (mostly, but not always) the eighth notes. Oh yeah, and there’s an accelerando too.

Considering the contrapuntal density of this passage and the fact that the low brass are playing forte, I don’t see why Ruzicka didn’t tell the violins to use the ever-reliable tactic that I (and countless other orchestral musicians) have used when confronted by unplayable passages which really are not heard by the audience: fake it. I think Pettersson was going for an effect here, and perfect definition of each pitch, even if it was possible to do, would not have been perceived by the audience.

Anyhow, Segerstam not only manages to get just about a minute within Pettersson’s timing, he has his band sounding confident and secure in this extremely difficult music. Special mention goes to the violas and cellos, who frequently are playing above the violins, the first trumpet, and trombones.

In comparison, at Ruzicka’s tempos the music, especially the cascading runs, can sound a bit pedantic. You almost hear the concentration of the violins, as if they were beating in quarter notes, and as they try line everything up where it should be. Even at the slower tempi the DSO sounds quite uncomfortable with this music (quite a few pitch problems). Unfortunately I am not getting the power and confidence from the low brass and first trumpet here, although the horns do quite well. Ruzicka may have a bit of an advantage going into the lyrical island, as there he produces a richness of sound which is not found with Segerstam.

EDIT, 12.1.14: Segerstam did exactly what was written. See here. There is one more thing which is worth mentioning. In the final measure of the score, the first eighth beat (with a fermata) is a massive CM7 chord, played by full orchestra, while the next eighth beat (or should I say, double-dotted half note) is the F# major chord in strings only. Although Pettersson does not indicate a breath mark between the CM7 and F# major chords, Ruzicka takes one here (Comissiona does the same). Segerstam does something quite different here, again breaking from what the score says. On the first eighth note of the last measure, Segerstam has everyone except the strings drop out (there should be woodwinds and brass here), and the strings transition from the CM7 to the F# major chord without a pause (as indicated in the score). While Segerstam does the best job (and a very convincing one too) with the final measure compared to his competition, this is not what Pettersson wrote.

I am hoping Lindberg will be able to record the symphonies that Segerstam has already recorded, so if he does, will he follow Pettersson literally?


  1. Thanks for explaining the difference between the endings of the two recordings. I don't have the score, but when I heard Segerstam's version, I clearly noticed that something was different here, not only the tempo. I only own Ruzicka's version, which is quite convincing to me, so I can't help feeling that Segerstam rushes away. Probably I should buy the record and listen to it a few more times.