Saturday, September 22, 2012

Recordings: Symphony No. 16

Symphony No.16
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Frederick L. Hemke, saxophone
Antal Doráti, conductor
Swedish Society Discophil SCD 1002
Symphony No.16
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken
John-Edward Kelly
Alun Francis
CPO 999 284-2
We have two commercially available recordings of this interesting work. The first recording features the forces involved in the premiere, which is always nice to have, and the second features the saxophonist John-Edward Kelly and the ever-reliable CPO Pettersson conductor, Alun Francis. What is special about the CPO recording is that it is actually a revised version, but the revisions were not made by the composer himself but Kelly. 

On the first page of the score Pettersson indicates the range of the solo saxophone, reminiscent of the diagrams printed on the inside covers of blank manuscript paper pads and those found in orchestration textbooks. Kelly points this out in his excellent liner notes in the CPO release—apparently the composer was so unfamiliar with the range of the saxophone that he needed a readily available way to remind himself. According to Kelly, when he was asked to record this work, his study of the solo part left him disinclined to perform it, as Pettersson made such limited use of the saxophone’s range in what would otherwise have been a truly dramatic work. Considering how Pettersson loved to use the extreme ranges of the instruments in the orchestra, Pettersson’s use of the saxophone in this work seemed rather out-of-character and he attempted to “compensate” for the saxophone’s shortcomings with some interesting doublings. Sometimes Pettersson cuts off upward surging lines in the soloist and “rescues” it with other instruments, such as muted trumpets. Furthermore, apparently at the premiere the solo saxophone was sometimes inaudible against the dense orchestral backdrop, presumably because an instrument playing in its middle range will get buried when everyone else is screaming away in extreme registers. 

At the suggestion of one of Kelly’s friends, Kelly decided to make revisions to the solo part, namely where the saxophone line can be played an octave higher, thus putting the instrument into its extreme register while also allowing it to stand out better against the orchestral texture. The Kelly recording features these changes, while the Hemke recording is what Pettersson wrote. 

Since it is a recording, with Hemke’s take any difficulties in hearing the soloist can be solved with microphone placement, so at least here I do not have any problems picking out the soloist. Hemke has no problems with the diabolical solo part, being in full control over not only the virtuoso sections but also Pettersson’s more lyrical writing. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic under Ahronovitch plays like a band on fire, and at times it is truly exciting (Ahronovitch actually programmed a lot of Pettersson with the RSPO, I would love to hear the archival recordings). Tempo-wise Ahronovitch is a couple minutes faster than Pettersson’s indicated timing, while Francis is pretty much right on. I feel that this works for Ahronovitch nicely, as I do not think this score contains Pettersson’s most inspired music, so keeping things brisk is a good idea. 

As expected, you’re never going to get bad Pettersson when Francis is on the podium, but again, I think the Swedes have the edge here. Kelly is just at home in this score as Hemke, and the sections where he plays an octave higher work well, although they do not really change my opinion of the piece. Kelly’s tone is a bit more restrained and less soulful than Hemke, but his virtuosity is never in doubt. Francis’ Saarbrucken band plays confidently, but they just do not bring the same level of visceral excitement as the RSPO.

So these are both good recordings of this work, although if you had to pick just one I’m a bit more in favor of Hemke. However, Kelly’s revisions are definitely worth hearing, especially for fans of this work, or anyone who is seriously interested in Pettersson (which is everyone who is reading this).

1 comment:

  1. I find it quite hard to believe that a man like Pettersson had to remind himself of the range of the saxophone while he was composing for it. Regarding his special ability to concentrate on his work to an extreme degree, it is more likely that he made himself an expert on the solo instrument before starting to compose. Well, nobody knows.