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Lars-Erik LARSSON (1908-1986)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 17 (1937) [34:17]
Variations for Orchestra, Op. 50 (1962) [17:58]
Barococo - Suite for Orchestra, Op. 64 (1973) [17:31]
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 4-8 April 2011, Konserthuset, Helsingborg, Sweden
CPO 777 672-2 SACD [69:53]

Easy and pleasing to report that Volume 2 of this series dedicated to the orchestral music of Lars-Erik Larsson repeats the high artistic, technical and musical qualities of volume 1 (review review). As with that disc, the only mystery is why they have held it in their vaults for nearly five years before release.

CPO have copied the format they used in volume 1 of coupling a Symphony - here No.2 - with smaller scale orchestral works. Larsson is by no means as obscure as many composers who grace the CPO catalogue but neither is his work exactly over-recorded. The only comparisons to be had here are the Symphonies recorded with the same orchestra some years ago for BIS (BIS-CD-426 and BIS-CD-096). To be sure this new version is excellent in nearly every regard but the older disc is by no means supplanted. Hans-Peter Frank conducting the earlier disc finds a broader more epic quality whereas Andrew Manze underlines the flowing nature of the music emphasising what might be called Larsson's Pastoral/Neo Classical style. Hard not to hear echoes of Sibelius particularly when Larsson accompanies melodies with strumming pizzicati and a kind of oom-pah alternating chordal sequence in the pizzicato strings.

As with all of Larsson's music that I know there is an easy grace and benevolent lyricism that is most appealing. Not to say the music lacks drama or backbone when required but it is rarely dark or anguished. Both recordings vie with each other for technical excellence, although the newer CPO recording has the ultimate edge in terms of refinement and natural perspective. But both are very good at capturing the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra as sounding like a well drilled and skilled ensemble with excitingly powerful brass, subtle wind soloists and athletic nimble strings. The symphony is in three movements although the central section is tri-partite with an Andante section flanking an Allegro alla Marcia. Here the two interpreter's roles reverse with Manze the slower. Although the central section is marked 'alla marcia' the spirit seems to be more of a polka-like dance and I find Manze's steadier more buoyant approach more appropriate and ultimately a fraction more convincing. Christoph Schlüren provides the extended and informative liner note as he did in Volume 1. He points to the fact that Larsson seemed to lack confidence in his larger scale symphonic works. All three symphonies were withdrawn by the composer after their initial performances perhaps because the shade of his Nordic predecessors hung too heavy. It was only late in Larsson's life that he allowed them to be performed again and valued in their own right. However, he did allow the third and final movement of the 2nd Symphony to have an independent life under the title Ostinato which refers to the passacaglia-like process that underpins the movement. This recurring figure - which Schlüren rightly likens to Bach's C minor Passacaglia is in turn derived from the first movement's opening material. This is the most overtly sombre movement which builds over the first four or so minutes [five in Frank's interpretation] to an imposing climax. Suddenly and rather unexpectedly Larsson introduces a skittering fugal sequence. Here Manze is substantially faster than Frank and it is the only time the strings in particular seem under any kind of technical stress - Manze's tempo is exciting but I do find it makes some of the brass figurations sound a fraction gabbled. As abruptly as the fugue started it ends and the symphony's closing minute and a half revisits the opening passacaglia figure in a mood of muted recollection before allows the music to settle at the last into a more confident E major.

So ultimately honours are pretty even between the two recordings of the symphony with each emphasising different aspects of the music to good effect. The remainder of the CPO programme is pretty much unchallenged although I see the Orchestral Variations Op.50 did turn up on an old Swedish Society LP. Certainly it is not a work I had heard before. As with Volume 1 and the Op.40 Music for Orchestra it presents a very different musical face of Larsson. Indeed one that is all but unrecognisable after the benevolent lyricism of his other works. In it Larsson investigates the use of 12-tone serial techniques. From the outset this is 'spikier' music - by no means difficult or unattractive to listen to simply quite a difference from the easy lyricism of much of his output. The analogy I would have is with Berg at his most approachable. What is most interesting is the way Larsson fuses elements of his neo-classical instincts with the intellectual rigour of serial composition. So the orchestration is lucid and clear allied to neatly contrapuntal passagework all within a frame of serial composition techniques. I cannot say in all honesty that this is my favourite piece of Larsson but it is excellent to have it here presented in such a well-honed performance as an example of the range of his work.

The disc is completed by a entertainingly light-hearted late work. As the punning title - Barococo - implies this is a six movement suite which goes way beyond Larsson normal neo-classicism to create something that deliberately pastiches and plays with the conventions and clichés of Classical/Baroque music. Also evident is a direct homage to Prokofiev's Classical Symphony - particularly in the second movement Gavotte which all but quotes from the earlier work as well as a passing reference to Boccherini's famous Minuet . Other movements again all but quote or parody Mozart - in the third movement Serenade and Haydn in the Minuet as well as echoes of Rossini's Barber of Seville in the latter too. Constant side slips in rhythm and harmony and playful orchestration make this light music of the very highest order and great fun to play I imagine. Again a sparkling performance from the Helsingborg orchestra makes this a delightful 'dessert' to a programme of more substantial fare.

A pretty much perfect disc; varied and fascinating music superbly performed and recorded and intelligently presented. Andrew Manze is no longer the Principal Conductor of the orchestra so one but hopes that the remaining volumes in this series - at least one to include the Third Symphony - were safely recorded before he left.

Nick Barnard
Previous review: Dan Morgan


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