Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 10

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.

Symphony No. 10
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam
BIS CD-880

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Symphony No. 10 (1972)

Sorry for the delay. I am practicing now, more than I have in years, so hopefully that is a legitimate excuse. 

This symphony is another instance of where I really wish I knew more about the biographical circumstances of Pettersson’s life during the time of composition. From what I know, the story goes like this: shortly after completing his gargantuan Symphony No. 9 Pettersson spends the next nine (!!!) months in Karolinska Hospital for a life-threatening kidney ailment, presumably triggered by the medication he was taking for rheumatoid arthritis. Apparently he sketched portions of his Symphonies No. 10 and 11 on gauze bandages and compresses (although I imagine that Gudrun could have just brought him some manuscript paper).

Regardless, the Symphony No. 10 is, along with the Symphony No. 6, one of my all-time favorite Pettersson symphonies. It never fails to move me at each hearing; just thinking about it gives me chills and goose-bumps. If there was such a thing as life-or-death music, this would be it. This music is the ultimate embodiment of the human spirit’s sheer force of will.

Unsurprisingly, this is crazy, brutal music. Despite the symphony’s relative brevity (around 26 minutes), every player is pushed to the limit, and then pushed even further. For the snare drum player it is almost non-stop playing; it could be the best thing since Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 or the worst thing since Bolero. Despite all this, however, one never gets the sense that Pettersson is being gratuitously loud, dissonant, or brutal just for the sake of shock or effect; the music comes across as if this is exactly the way it should be. Unfortunately, the CPO liner notes actually has no information on the premiere of this symphony, but according to Juergen Lange’s webpage, the premiere took place on 16 December 1973.

Pettersson wastes no time jumping headfirst into the conflict. A rapid sixteenth note run, almost a snarl, starts on a low C in low strings and bassoons. The run hits a C# and drops right back down to the low C (the space of a minor ninth). A solo trumpet, doubled by first violins, announces the call to battle: a leap of a fifth followed by a leap of a tritone (E-B-F). This battle call, both rhythmically and/or intervallically, will come back constantly. By this time, in just the space of a few measures, Pettersson has introduced all the material from which the symphony will be derived.

Although it is clear from the symphony’s outset that this is a battle, to me the first few minutes seem like Pettersson is surveying the battlefield or assessing his opponent. Relatively speaking, here the music is lacking some of the strain and conflict which will be found in overabundance as the symphony progresses. The battle really gets going, I would say 5 after rehearsal 15 (repeated stabbing attacks from trumpets and trombones in a 6/8 feel superimposed on 2/2).

Violins, then horns introduce a repeated note motive, creating a more palpable sense of desperation. A passage for solo violins leads to a somewhat dreamy section of string sections exchanging ascending licks canonically. Horns and strings offer commentary with falling gestures. Low woodwinds and double basses provide a gently undulating accompaniment. Interjections from brass and percussion threaten this state of relative calm. These interjections become increasingly aggressive. 

Rather than reaching a climax, the music peaks and quickly falls back into a calmer state. The following section could be described as a sort of “fantasia” on the battle call. Over a steady woodwind accompaniment strings trade the battle call, first ascending, then descending. The battle call returns to the ascending direction, harmonized in fourths, as the music becomes agitated. The entrance of xylophone and a truncated variation of the opening scale return the music to the conflict.

The brass now take the lead in the musical argument, inexorably pushing the music to a climax of sorts: repeated off-beat brass chords antagonizing the tuba, which plays a conflicting rhythm. Angular strings, shrill piccolo and rapid runs from xylophone and celeste are followed by muted trumpets, suggesting that the music is quickly moving to another climax.

However, the music dies down in volume, where we enter another “fantasia.” Over a swirling sea of surging string clusters, the bass instruments trade a variation on the battle call. The variation moves into the higher instruments of the orchestra, introducing the next phase of the conflict.

Over celeste runs and xylophone glissandi the brass alternate between spitting, hurling gestures and groups of repeated note triplets. Listen to how the tuba struggles to fight back against this onslaught. The music builds up to a variation of the battle call (using the pitches E-B-F-Db), stated forcefully, followed by extremely strained string clusters.

The music takes a turn: trumpets, violins and violas play a slowly falling line. A sense of fear and anxiety has come over, as if defeat is near and inevitable. Listen to the amazing rhythmic interplay between the brass and percussion. The entrance of the low brass and timpani on a low F pedal, along with an ascending trumpet leads to horns announcing the opening battle call: the fight is far from over.

However, a sense of defeat returns. Upper strings trade slowly falling lines over a quietly swirling accompaniment from the cellos. The effect here is like being left for dead, alone, in a frozen, desolate landscape. However, the low brass slowly but steadily reassert themselves, leading to piercing, screaming alarm calls of open fifths played by high woodwinds, trumpets, and violins. Underneath this is a constant Shostakovichian march rhythm played by snare and tenor drum along with leaping, sputtering horns. The battle resumes.

Timpani, in the “Janacek-register” (G below middle C) insistently pound out the rhythm of the opening battle cry. Stratospheric, screaming violins try to sing a lament, but repeated motives from the low brass (variations on the E-B-F-Db motive, see above) and percussion maintain a sense of extreme strain. 

The extremely protracted G pedal established by the timpani essentially serves as a dominant for the next section: finally, the music reaches a c minor lament. However, there is a constant sense of forward motion; this is not a place of true calm. The lament is heard in two long phrases—the second time a steady percussion beat moves the music ahead.

However, as expected, there is no time to stay here; the fight to survive continues. Over a snare drum roll the opening scale run is heard, followed by violas announcing the battle call. Although this seems like a recap of sorts it becomes quickly clear that something is different. Everything is more compact, tighter. In short succession previously heard rhythms and motives are played, as if Pettersson were taking the key points of the symphony and compressing them. The music moves inexorably to the final, white-hot, delirious rush to the finish: shrieking piccolo, screaming horns and trumpets, and earth-rattling timpani push to the final C# Major chord. However, this is not a triumphant resolution, but almost like a quick blow. I can’t remember who wrote this, but this description works perfectly here: is the last chord a final “fist in the air” of defiance, or “is it a punch to the face?”