Kringelborn and Segerstam with NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam with Solveig Kringelborn (soprano).

Karelia Suite (Sibelius); Symphony No 191 (Segerstam); Prelude to Die Meistersinger (Wagner); Four Last Songs (Strauss) 

Michael Fowler Centre, Saturday 31 October 2009

It’s 20 years since I heard Leif Segerstam conducting the NZSO, and the memory is of a highly gifted musician blessed with an eccentric’s sense of humour, enlivened with an intelligence and vivacity that sets him apart in his profession. His notes to his 191st symphony also reveal a fascination with numerology which he applies playfully to several strands of his life. Not that a whimsical delight in numbers is altogether foreign to musicians: Bach was similarly absorbed, at least according a lot of his commentators, and so was Schoenberg.

Segerstam’s own notes about the symphony and certain other matters connected with family dates and word meanings, are both pertinent and impertinent, amusing to the like-minded, possibly irritating to more serious, literal souls. 

What to make of a composer who has already written 230 symphonies buy the age of 65? Why not? It’s only about four a year through his adult life.

His notes are probably intended to be more mocking of ordinary musical analysis than valuable in ‘understanding’ the piece. We must start with an understanding the Rosenkrantz form, recognising the ‘free-pulsative’ style with roots in ‘Wiener Schule [presumably he means the Second Viennese School] seasoned with Nordic nature visions’. He refers to his creation as ‘a gigantic chambermusical happening for large orchestra performing without a conductor’.

After the orchestra had rearranged after the Karelia Suite, percussion-dominated sounds suddenly arose though there was indeed no one on the podium. It took a little while to spot Segerstam at the piano, obscured for me under the balcony, stage left.

As for the music, there was plenty of noise, rhythm, jolly juxtapositions of percussion and strings or woodwinds, or the tuba; monotony was out of the question as was any real attempt to pursue lines of argument or the recognition of motifs, rhythms, colourings.

Musically it suggested Messiaen in the spirit of Satie.

You could tell when a section had ended as a group of players stood to cue the start of the next section: flute and piccolo, or the brass, or the Concertmaster alone; thereafter it was rather chacun à son goût, though the notes assured us that improvising was forbidden except when ‘playing in symbiosis with all others’.  

The common reaction at the interval was of amused bemusement. The word ‘boring’ was not in use though neither was the word ‘masterpiece’.

The concert had begun with a sonorous and slow performance of the Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite. The programme note had drawn attention to the original incidental music for a set of tableaux depicting aspects of Karelian life from which an overture (later to become Op 10) and the three movements of the familiar suite, Op 11, were later compiled. Strange that an era of frantic musical research into the origins of things hasn’t led an Osmo Vänskä or someone to unearth the original music for performance. There were some loving performances: the opening horns, open or muted, suggesting a cold dawn, Robert Orr’s oboe and later, Michael Austin’s cor anglais.

Segerstam is a large Brahms-like figure on the podium whose size seems to be totally absorbed into the music, its soulfulness or its grandeur. The Karelia Suite might have been rather a small ration of his great compatriot for some (me for example), but its quarter hour was worth three-quarters of many another piece of music.

The second half opened with the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, again filled, not with Beckmesserish self-importance but with Sachsish humanity, spaciousness of utterance, nobility. As befitted the conductor’ character, it was both loose-limbed, seeming unconcerned by attention to tight ensemble, but achieving something much more profoundly dramatic through that very unconcern. Segerstam’s success lay in the way he unobtrusively inspired the players (possibly without their even being aware) to discover their individual, and collective, feelings for the music’s great generosity of spirit. The thrilling peroration before curtain-rise created a great longing for just that; which is what our biennial Festival will of course give us once more.

The Four Last Songs may well have been the main attraction for many of the audience, and perhaps also, for those whose idea of a symphony concert rests on a starry pianist or violinist, a reason for all those empty seats. The orchestral element had all the nostalgia, languorousness, sense of the past, of the loss that Strauss felt at the destruction of his beloved Germany. But I was not convinced that Kringelborn was the born interpreter, in spite of the prominence of these songs in her performance record. Her lower register was certainly well based and attractive, but there was a slightly troublesome beat around the top of the stave and in pianissimo her top notes had an edginess rather than an ethereal quality. Nor did she produce an interesting, expressive variety of tone such as these beautiful songs lie open to and I found myself unmoved at the end.

However, her diction was clear, particularly in the third song, ‘Beim Schlafengehen’; clarity of diction is not a strength for many sopranos. But my misgivings about this performance holds no implications for other Strauss works; I suspect she would be a fine Marschallin, an Ariadne, a Dyer’s Wife. It was perhaps as well that the cycle ends with an extended postlude that allowed the orchestra to bring it to a close with a glorious, deeply felt, emotional litany.

In all, this concert’s slightly unorthodox programme, and a soloist not much known outside the opera house probably explained the rather thin audience. In spite of that, there was no missing the sustained, rapturous and emotional depth that Segerstam drew from the orchestra in all four works.


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