RECORDING REVIEW | Brahms & Segerstam | Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Takizawa & Segerstam | "...a refreshing disc, although I am a tad bit disappointed that I did not experience the groundbreaking eccentricity that was looming in expectation"

Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Symphony No. 2 [49:51]
Leif SEGERSTAM (b. 1944)
Symphony No. 289, “When a Cat Visited” [19:05]
Nobu Takizawa (violin)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam (pianist),
rec. Turku Concert Hall, November 2015 (Brahms) & January 2016 (Segerstam)
ALBA ABCD403 SACD [69:00]

If Segerstam is at the helm, one can usually expect a special occasion, for the better or worse. After all, it is the Finnish conductor who conducted in London in 2015 Bruckner’s 8thsymphony that lasted a sublime 100 minutes (the average duration of this work is around 80 minutes). It is also Segerstam who holds the unofficial accolade of being the composer with the most number of symphonies – 309, as of July 2017, and still counting. As if to reflect his imposing physicality, there is something captivatingly immense and otherworldly in Segerstam’s musical personality. The provided liner notes, too, written by the composer/conductor himself, brims over with brilliance of utterances that plunge deep into the realms of the human subconscious and cosmic grandeur, where all things considered and implied mix together in a magical blur. The present recording then, by coupling an oft-recorded Brahms symphony with one of Segerstam’s own symphonies, both conducted by Segerstam himself, offers an opportunity for an outlook into the panorama of Segerstam’s musical world.

When Segerstam writes that the Symphony No. 2 of Brahms would befit a “show of white horses in Vienna”, a certain curiosity arises as to what kind of show this may be, mainly because the interpretation is certainly not one that emphasizes pace nor festivity. If this generally broadly sober view may disappoint of those who were expecting another Jochum (DG) for its bracing excitement, they may be further flustered by Segerstam’s decision to step in various moments to loosen the gear further, as well as to doggedly observe the exposition repeat in the Allegro non troppo. Given that Segerstam has no interest in imbuing the work with warmth and nobility through the generous application of legato, as, for example, Giulini does in his live recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG), Segerstam’s approach, which in fact is not as slow as Giulini’s, risks sounding rigid and cold.

That being said, in this aesthetics that Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra pursue, plenty of value can be found. For its expansiveness, the playing is stunningly beautiful at times, and mostly in great coordination. The beginning of the Adagio non troppo comes to mind immediately (“a Grail-like atmosphere will be saved on the memory card between the ears”, writes Segerstam on this movement). With ice-cold clarity, the ensemble plays with a chamber music-like intimacy and understanding. The restraint of vibrato in the thin sounding strings, along with well-defined winds translate into an echt-Finnish breeze. Like Nordic furniture, all is sufficiently angular and simple in its spacious luminosity. Just as one can prefer their Sibelius to sound stark and unaffected (e.g. Berglund, Sanderling) over one that is more overt in Romantic impulse (e.g. Maazel, Barbirolli), Segerstam’s way with Brahms has an inner beauty that is novel and attractive.

For a composer who has already written more than 300 symphonies, that his Symphony No. 289 is selected for its world premiere recording, probably indicates the composer’s special attachment towards this work. Certainly, inundated with episodes of piano ostinato, string glissando, percussive drizzle, and metallic echoes, it is a work that keeps the mind interested in its multifaceted lights and shades of expressions. While the work has something similar to the elemental impulse of the symphonies of Nørgård, never missing is a sense of calm even in the percussive central section.

All in all, this is a refreshing disc, although I am a tad bit disappointed that I did not experience the groundbreaking eccentricity that was looming in expectation. Perhaps a deep residing musical serenity underneath the occasions of his volcanic personality and the unexpectedness of this fact is what may be truly eccentric about Segerstam, and ultimately his creations.

This is a SACD recording, and the sound quality is superb. Taken from a live concert, there is no extra-musical noise including applause.

[This article was originally published on MusicWeb International]

Young-Jin Hur