BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in c minor; LEIF SEGERSTAM: Symphony No. 288, “Letting the Flow go on…” – Turku Philharmonic Orch. /Leif Segerstam – Alba

Fine, sensitive performance of the Brahms.

JOHANNES BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in c minor; LEIF SEGERSTAM: Symphony No. 288, “Letting the Flow go on…” – Turku Philharmonic Orch. /Leif Segerstam – Alba Records multichannel SACD ABCD390, 71:35 [Distr. by Albany] (7/29/16) ***:

The first things I noticed about this new (and very good) rendition of the Brahms first is the cover. We get one of the best known photos of Johannes Brahms aside that of the physically quite similar composer-conductor Leif Segerstam (only Brahms looks less manic) The other thing that caught my attention immediately was the title and mere fact of the existence of Segerstam’s Symphony No. 288 (Two Hundred Eighty-Eight! …. Haydn and Hovhaness, move over). More on that.

Segerstam’s rendition of the iconic Brahms Symphony No. 1 is quite good. While I really, really like a couple of the older versions, such as those by Giulini and von Karajan, this is a very nicely paced performance with great sensitivity to style. I found the second movement especially lovely. This is, in my opinion, one of the best symphonies by any composer, ever, and there are certainly and literally hundreds of recordings to choose from (because it’s a spectacular piece!) This one by Segerstam and the Turku (Finland) Philharmonic is quite good and I found nothing in it to set it ahead of the several other really good ones but, similarly, I found nothing in this performance that struck me as eccentric or odd and – I admit – I was afraid there would be. Here’s why:

I have never seen Leif Segerstam live and I believe this is my first recording of his. However, nearly every online article I have seen and, occasionally, some concert reviews indicate that Segerstam’s podium demeanor and, sometimes, his interpretation is indeed eccentric, odd, gestural and – at worst – attention seeking; almost like a wizard with a baton. (There are a wealth of photos online with facial gestures that illustrate this notion pretty well) Is Leif Segerstam some sort of “mad genius?” I have no idea. However, the booklet notes to this recording are by him and I challenge you to read them and instantly get what he is trying to say or feel connected to his vision.

For example, in trying to explain or analyze the artistic mindset of Brahms we get “Don’t be afraid to increase the dose of blobic porridge of music, there is no danger in over-eating…” And we get references that – I guess – you would get if you are one of Segerstam’s cognoscenti; such as “..stalker-crawlings from one point to the other (a la Paul Jenkins’ famous painting)  Oh and, I am not sure…. is “maxipulsively” a real word?  Maestro, please! Stuff like that drives me crazy. I assume everyone would want hear this really good recording and actually understand what the conductor is trying to do.

Now. For Segerstam’s Symphony No. 288, “Letting the FLOW go on…” is a very neo-abstract and rambling work that, as the composer indicates is written without bar lines and played without a conductor. (I guess there’s that “flow going-on” thing.) Segerstam also says that his work has a “Rosenkranz shape (and an) arch similar to that of Master Sibelius’ Seventh…”  His notes to the symphony are as obtuse and, ultimately unhelpful as those to the Brahms. The piece itself I did not despise. I just did not get much out of it and taking just this number 288 and comparing it to the multitude of symphonies written by others these past twenty years I simply found it nearly a non-entity. Of course, there are apparently two hundred eighty-seven others to go listen to.

So, my take on this recording is as follows: Segerstam’s rendition of the Brahms is really good; maybe not “the best” if one could even identify such a thing but well worth listening to. As for Segerstam’s work; it is interesting to be sure but it feels like one of those mid 1960s aleatoric experiences that find only a small sympathetic audience.   The sound quality of this SACD is great as most things from Alba usually are and the Turku Philharmonic is a very fine ensemble.

—Daniel Coombs

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