Friday, February 25, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 3

Symphony No. 3
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken (now Deutsche Radio Philharmonie?)
Alun Francis
CPO 999 223-2 

Symphony No. 3
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam

If I were to broadly generalize the differences between these two recordings, I would say that Segerstam favors a “clean and lean” (I could put in a bad joke here, if you know what Segerstam looks like) approach, while Francis is weightier and richer. Overall, Segerstam is quite a bit swifter, taking about 37 minutes with this piece compared to Francis’ 40. In the opening movement, Segerstam is about one minute faster than Francis, which is a plus considering how this movement can get a bit long. At this tempo, Segerstam’s opening motive has a stabbing, incisive quality, while Francis sounds a bit like stomping heavy boots. Likewise, when the violins come in, Segerstam favors crisp articulation while Francis is more legato (I wish I had the score!).

Segerstam also tends to bring out or exaggerate orchestrational details, and without the score I cannot be sure if he is following Pettersson’s intentions or simply bringing out extra color. For example, listen to how Segerstam swells the violin’s dynamic in both the openings of the first and second movements, and then drops back to subito piano.

Segerstam’s approach can seem a bit distant at times. In the militaristic climax of the third movement, Francis’ bigger and fuller sound adds the necessary punch which is somewhat missing with Segerstam. Francis’ slightly slower tempo here also allows the downward runs to register more clearly in the transition between the third and fourth movements, while Segerstam, despite being “cleaner and leaner” overall, is a bit muddier here.

I do want to give special mention to the tuba playing in the Francis recording, particularly in the first movement. For example, at 5:02, listen to how the tuba really digs into those low F naturals. Or at 9:51, where that mid-range Eb holds dominance over the orchestra.

In the final analysis, I can recommend both versions here as viable representations of this work, while being sufficiently different from each other to offer distinct interpretations. 

Honderd jaar Pettersson

Well, I suppose another performance of Pettersson's Symphony No. 7 is better than no performance at all. I imagine Holst fans feel the same pain, hearing The Planets over and over again. Carl Orff fans?

At this time of year I eagerly check the webpages of major orchestras, ensembles, and concert organizers to see what kinds of things are brewing for the next concert season. When I went to the Concertgebouw webpage today I noticed that some of the following season's programs have been announced. I looked at the first few pages of the ZaterdagMatinee series, and, lo and behold, saw Pettersson's name as one of the focus composers for the upcoming year. Could it be, a series of concerts outside of Sweden in one of the world's finest acoustics dedicated to Pettersson?

Heart racing, I quickly scrolled through the digital brochure to find out which piece(s) were going to be played, and, guess what? Symphony No. 7. The rest of the program is filled out with typical audience-friendly Nordic fare (Grieg and Nielsen). The conductor is Roman Kofman, the orchestra the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (they need all of our support!!!). In case you are wondering, the RFO is a pretty mean band--I remember attending a jaw-droppingly intense performance of Shosty's Symphony No. 4 under Mark Wigglesworth in 2005, so these guys can pull it off. The RFO usually gives concerts in the Vredenburg Utrecht so it is likely this program will be repeated in Utrecht as well, but we'll have to wait and see if this is the case.

So, Dutch Pettersson fans, mark this in your calendars: 17 September 2011, 14.15, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. I might even make an appearance as well, as the Netherlands is a great place to drink beer...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Symphony No. 3 (1954-1955)

Even though I have considered myself a pretty serious Pettersson fan since the late 90’s (I am writing this blog, after all) before I started this project there were only a handful of Pettersson symphonies that I would regularly come back to. Up until very recently, the Symphony No. 2 was a piece I had little interest in, but now I can rank it as one of my favorites. Unfortunately, unlike its predecessor, this recent reassessment of the Symphony No. 3 has only marginally increased my appreciation of this work, and it is unlikely that I will come back to this piece often.

Unlike the vast majority of Pettersson’s symphonies, which are one-movement affairs, the Symphony No. 3 is unique because it is his only symphony to employ a “traditional” four movement structure (the other multi-movement symphony, no. 8, is in two movements). Although it is possible to consider this as Pettersson’s acknowledgment to the symphonic tradition, in my opinion I feel that here Pettersson is awkwardly trying to impose his style of symphonic thought onto the traditional multi-movement structure. Even though the majority of the symphony is derived from the opening gesture, the overall result feels lacking in cohesion (more below). In the one-movement Symphony No. 2, where Pettersson was free to move and rearrange his building materials accordingly without constraint of traditionally defined movements, was considerably more effective. The Symphony No. 3 was premiered on 21 November 1956 by the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Tor Mann.

The symphony opens with brief introduction: a bass drum roll followed by an upward moving motive of decisive nature, played by cellos and basses. Fourths and tritones are featured prominently. The violins enter tentatively, soon elaborating on their initial idea. The movement proper begins with the violins playing a variation of the initial cello/bass motive. The first movement is very episodic, with frequent, often jarring changes of tempo and mood. Once a new idea comes in (more often than not a variation of the cello/bass motive) it is rudely cut off and another idea comes in, abruptly. One particularly special moment in this movement is the passage led by throbbing tuba playing minor ninth leaps, followed by a passionate cry from the violins played on upper-register G string. The low brass build a chord from the bottom up, then give way to strings. While the violins hold a B the harmony moves a half step downward (G-D to F#-C#, or V of b minor), leaving a beautifully strained suspended fourth. Almost worth the price of admission right there. Also notice the Mahler 5 leaps and later on the passage for clarinet and low strings, which really reminds me of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

The second movement begins with another variation of the opening cello/bass motive, played by violins. A lost solo flute enters, wandering above a beautiful chord held by the strings. Here, and elsewhere in the movement, Pettersson hints at some tantalizingly beautiful moments, but leaves them mostly unfulfilled. The music begins to gain some forward momentum, but leads into a queasy passage featuring high woodwinds and xylophone. This movement does achieve a moment of emotional catharsis, with a solo violin leading a mournful, conventional V-I cadence to Eb minor. A brief transitional passage (which KA Hartmann practically quotes in his Symphony no. 8) leads attaca to the next movement.

The brief third movement opens with tentative low clarinets, answered by violins. This gesture quickly gains momentum, with other instruments joining in. Developing organically from what came immediately before, a repeated note motive, followed by swirling runs, takes over the musical landscape. The music builds up to an impressive climax, almost Shostakovich-like in its militancy. Dizzying downward runs lead the transition attaca to the last movement.

The final movement begins with elaborated recaps of some of the major gestures heard in previous movements. A whiff of the last movement of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 passes by. Then, in my opinion at least, the music really starts to wander and Pettersson loses me. Although there are a few musically satisfying moments, as a whole I find this movement to be unsatisfying. Uh…I suppose that’s my excuse for not writing more about this one.

Although it is clear that this symphony is cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, it sounds to me as if Pettersson is a bit unsure of himself in this piece, as opposed to the confidence he projected in his Symphony No. 2. Particularly in the outer movements, there just sounds like a lot of filler to me, like Pettersson is trying to unnecessarily milk out more variations of his opening cello/bass motive.

I cannot remember where I read this, but apparently Pettersson was very pleased with this piece in comparison to what he had written before. I’d be really curious to hear what others think about this piece, and for fans of this work to share with me what I’m missing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 2

Symphony No. 2
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Alun Francis
CPO 999281  

Symphony No. 2
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Stig Westerberg
SCD 1012

When I began this survey of Pettersson's orchestral works I was not really looking forward to the first two symphonies--2 and 3--as I initially found them elusive and really never listened to them much in the 10 or so years that I've owned the recordings. At this time I was happy that I only had one recording to listen to of the 2nd (BBCSSO/Francis), and I could just sort of get it over with, and move on. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, after this most recent round of listening the 2nd Symphony has become one of my favorite Pettersson symphonies, and I was actually a little disappointed that I only had one recording to listen to (Lindberg recently recorded Symphonies 1 and 2 in Norrköping for BIS, but no word on when it will be released). I was fortunate enough to have the Allan Pettersson 100 sampler CD, distributed by Gehrmans, which had an excerpt of Westerberg's recording of the 2nd. Listening to this brief excerpt I knew right away that Westerberg's take on this piece was noticeably different than Francis', and it would be worth my time to hunt down the full recording. 

Thanks to the excellent local resources, I was able to find the Westerberg recording in the library of the Helsinki Conservatory (not the same as the Sibelius Academy), and I am happy to include it in this post. 

I'll probably come back to this theme over and over again throughout this survey, but these two recordings nicely illustrate a dilemma when performing Pettersson: technical polish and musicality over kick-to-the-gut emotionality and viscerality? As you may recall from an earlier post, I actually favored the less technically sound performance of the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra because it sounded a bit rougher than the competition. This kinda makes me think of Michael Tilson Thomas in his Keeping Score Documentary series when he shares with the San Franscisco Symphony what he thinks often goes wrong with Tchaikovsky 4, a warhorse if there ever was one: "people just want to bash the hell out of it."

In the slow opening section I cannot hear too many obvious differences between the two, particularly in choice of tempo, although Westerberg does coax more incisive attacks from the brass. Once the symphony proper begins, however, the two conductors take pretty different paths with this music.

Overall, Francis leads a much more disciplined and musical approach to this symphony. The orchestra certainly plays better, and they have a much fuller, cleaner sound compared to the SRSO. In the denser passages the individual lines come across more clearly, allowing one to better relish all the things that Pettersson packs in. This, of course, might have partly to do with the recording quality, but it is clear that the BBCSSO is technically more secure. 

Francis chooses a slower tempo (about 47 minutes total compared to Westerberg's 42) but manages to achieve the feat of tying all the symphony's many disparate sections together in a coherent package. His take with this piece gives the impression of each building block leading inevitably to the next, despite the fact that Pettersson moves between extremes in this piece sometimes quite abruptly.

In Westerberg's recording, once the symphony proper begins you can immediately hear a roughness to the SRSO, particularly the strings. However, to my ears it soon became clear that the raw quality of the SRSO's playing, in addition to Westerberg's faster tempo, was actually quite flattering to this music. The eruptive percussion and biting brass, particularly the trombones, made this performance more visceral and exciting compared to Francis. In fact, if my first exposure to this piece was through this recording, I might have taken to it sooner just simply because Westerberg gives us that kick to the gut.

On the other hand, despite the faster tempo, Westerberg does tend to make the divisions between individual sections a bit more obvious, making the music seem more episodic and less coherent. Some gestures are a bit over-emphasized. In this regard Francis has the upper hand here.

I realize that talking about all the qualities of the Westerberg recording might be a moot point, because I don't think this recording is in print anymore. However, if you are a serious fan of this work, try to locate the Westerberg. Francis certainly make a better case for this work musically, but Westerberg is definitely more exciting.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Symphony No. 2 (1952-1953)

We have now reached the first full-orchestra work in this project, Symphony No. 2. It is the symphonies which make the (Swedish) meat(balls) and potatoes of this composer’s output, so let’s dig in and begin the feast.

I was converted to the Petterssonian faith in the late 90’s while still a student at the University of Wisconsin. After hearing the Doráti recording of the 7th I was hooked, and began purchasing Pettersson CDs with money I really didn’t have. By the time I purchased the CPO recording of the 2nd symphony, I was feeding myself a pretty steady diet of the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 15th symphonies.

At this time, however, I found the 2nd symphony rather elusive compared to the ones mentioned above, and after a handful of semi-serious attempts, I put this symphony aside.  In fact, 10 years later, as I was preparing myself for what I hoped would be Lindberg’s performance of the 2nd in Umeå (see my previous post), I still found myself struggling to crack this piece.

I am pleased to say that after this most recent round of listening I have placed this symphony pretty much to the top of my favorites.

In the years 1951-53 Pettersson, now already in his 40s, was studying in Paris with Leibowitz and Honegger. Leibowitz was a student of Webern and a staunch promoter of the Second Viennese School. It should come as little surprise that Pettersson viewed his time with Leibowitz as a “drill,” and his expressive urges exceeded the possibilities provided by serialism. The Symphony No. 2, began while Pettersson was working under Leibowitz’s (hey, am I using the apostrophe correctly there?) tutelage, was written, to quote the composer, “behind Leibowitz’s back.” The premiere took place in Stockholm on 9 May 1954 with Tor Mann conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

In this piece Pettersson conjures up a world full of contrasts, but somehow manages to tie it all together convincingly. The work opens with a lengthy introductory section, perhaps foreshadowing the introductory sections of symphonies 5-8. Over a slow funereal tread in the lower strings the violins enter with a motive based on a minor second, which will become a critical interval (along with the related major sevenths and minor ninths) through the work. Soon the violas play a motive (C-D-D#-E-C#) which reminds me of transitional passage between the introduction and allegro proper of the first movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. This motive will also play an important role.

The introduction ends with the funereal tread interrupted by a B-C minor ninth leap (a twisted version of opening of the 3rd movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9?). Soon the violins come in screaming on the notes B and C, separated by again by a minor ninth, only to come spiraling downward.

After a brief period of conflict a beautiful lyrical island appears. However, there is something wrong here. On the assumption that we’re in F# major, Pettersson sticks in all these wrong notes-C, G, and A naturals, for example. When the lyrical island reappears later in the work (see below), it sounds even more amiss.  

Although this is the first full orchestra work Pettersson presented to the public (his 1st was not performed until very recently), Pettersson appears quite comfortable handling and deploying the instrumental resources at hand. For example, listen to the absolutely wild passage after the quasi recapitulation with the B-C minor ninth leap, with cackling clarinets, and bleating, sliding brass, all leading up seamlessly to a beautiful, mournful solo-violin (CORRECTION, 11.3.11: looking at the score, it's solo cello--shame on me! I'm a cellist) led cadence.

About two thirds of the way through Pettersson takes us to perhaps the most consistently consonant section in the symphony, a passage of heartbreaking sadness. We are not allowed to stay here long, as rude interruptions from muted brass (especially trilling trumpets) shake us out of our grieving. This then leads to a reappearance of the F# major lyrical island, which sounds even more “off” than before (listen to the clarinets, for example).

As the symphony draws to a close it sounds as if the music is striving for something, making a final struggle to the finish, but instead, everything is cut off by a defiant siren call from the solo trumpet, accompanied by the dying away of a snare drum roll and low strings holding a  C. The music then fades to darkness.

The more I listen to this work the more I like it. For example, I am amazed at how much creative mileage Pettersson is able tease out of just that minor second. Despite all the different places Pettersson takes us, everything seems to make sense, despite how jarring some passages and transitions may be (there are several musical “signposts” to guide you along). It is personally very rewarding to come back to a work I once thought I could never sufficiently understand and now have it rank as one of my favorites.

Let’s hope a similar thing happens when I come to Symphonies 9 and 13!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

till Malmö! (to Malmö!)

This upcoming weekend in Malmö you can catch a FREE performance of the Seven Sonatas by none other than the Duo Gelland, the foremost interpreters of this work. This performance is part of an Allan Pettersson weekend at the Malmö Musikhögskola, which also includes performances of the 7th Symphony and Barefoot Songs. Be there if you can!
I'm afraid my excuse for not going is geography, so I'll just have to make do with the Musica Nova new music festival taking place here in Helsinki...