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Lars-Erik LARSSON (1908-1986)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 34 (1944-1945) [35:44]
Tre Orkesterstyken (3 Orchestral Pieces), Op. 49 (1960) [20:13]
Adagio for String Orchestra, Op. 48 (1960) [7:34]
Musica permutatio, Op. 66 (1980) [9:11]
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 2011, Konserthuset, Helsingborg, Sweden
Reviewed as a 16-bit press download
Pdf booklet included
CPO 777 673-2 SACD [72:00]

It’s been a long time coming, but CPO have now released the final instalment in their cycle of Lars-Erik Larsson’s orchestral music, with Andrew Manze and the Helsingborg Symphony. The first volume, which I reviewed in 2014, was such a revelation that I simply had to make it a Recording of the Year. The follow-up, reviewed in 2015, wasn’t quite so momentous, but then subsequent encounters are seldom as striking as those initial ones.

The Helsingborg band have also recorded these symphonies for BIS: Nos. 1 and 2 with Hans-Peter Frank (BIS-426), and No. 3 with Sten Frykberg (BIS-96). As for the couplings on this new CPO release, I’ve not managed to find rival versions of the Three Orchestral Pieces or Musica permutatio; however, I did locate the Adagio for String Orchestra, on ‘Swedish Orchestral Favourites Vol. 2’. Indeed, John France insisted that potpourri belongs on ‘every listener’s shelf’. That said, it’s BIS who’ve long championed this composer’s cause, with fourteen recordings of his music in their catalogue.

Listening to Larsson’s three symphonies it’s hard to believe he was plagued by self doubt; he withdrew No. 2 after its first performance, and it was left to fellow Swede Sten Frykberg (1910-1983) to make the first complete recording in 1973. No. 3, premiered in 1946 by Tor Mann and the Stockholm Philharmonic, was also withdrawn, the last movement recast as the Concert Overture No. 3. (The finale of Larsson’s Second Symphony was reissued as a standalone piece, called Ostinato.)

We owe Frykberg a great deal, for he and the Stockholm PO taped a complete Third for radio in 1975. Since then, the work has gained some traction, although Frykberg’s and Manze’s recordings are the only ones in the catalogue at present. The latter’s fresh, open-hearted way with the first two symphonies is very much in evidence in the third, the opening bars of which sound uncannily like the start of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’. It’s a fleeting association, though, for Larsson then launches into music of compelling vigour and clarity, its firm sense of purpose underpinned by superbly muscular timps.

There’s no escaping that expansive Nordic style, with nods to Carl Nielsen in particular, but Larsson’s voice remains a very distinctive one. The Helsingborg players, atmospherically recorded, are in splendid form; also, Manze imbues Larsson’s lively opener with a HIPPish transparency and athleticism that’s both apt and uplifting. Goodness, this is a promising start, not least because it reminds me of the vitality I so admired in Manze’s first – and best – volume.

After that Allegro con brio comes a trenchantly lyrical Adagio non troppo, whose dark sonorities and eloquent strings go surprisingly well together. As expected, Manze ensures the sometimes skittish Prestissimo – Trio is nicely articulated. That, coupled with a lightness of touch from both the podium and the control room, gives the music an attractive shape and buoyancy. Some of the animated brass writing in the Andante maestoso is remarkably Nielsen-like, although, as before, there’s more than enough creativity in Larsson’s pen to write an immensely likeable – even mischievous – finale.

The BIS/Frykberg Third was recorded in 1978, at a concert in honour of the composer’s 70th birthday. Same orchestra and hall, very different results. It’s a bigger and closer sound, and the performance itself doesn’t seem as compact or characterful as Manze’s. What I really miss, though, is the sheer zest, the incorrigible bounce and brio, that the latter brings to this assured and inventive score. I’d say Frykberg’s weighty, ‘full fat’ approach now feels rather old fashioned; that said, this analogue-era recording is still worth hearing. Ditto the delightful coupling, Förklädd Gud (God in Disguise).

Manze’s fillers date from much later in Larsson’s life. The Three Orchestral Pieces – Adagio/Presto/Adagio – has its roots in twelve-tone technique, yet its internal rigour is leavened by a lightness and lyricism that’s most appealing. Indeed, the conductor’s emphasis on mobility and telling detail really pays off here. The central movement is pleasingly Puckish – cue some very some deft musicianship – while the finale has a darker, more doleful cast. Throughout, the orchestra play with a lovely blend of finesse and feeling. What a splendid work this is! Not only that, I just can’t imagine a more illuminating performance of it than this.

In his exemplary liner-notes – a detailed biography as well as an analysis of the pieces played – Christoph Schlüren points out that Manze deliberately programmed the Adagio for String Orchestra next, as it segues perfectly with the quiet, string-led sign-off to Op. 49. And while I’m deeply impressed with this orchestra in general, I was bowled over by its refined string section in particular. I daresay the conductor has a lot to do with that, although the ‘near-through’ nature of this recording – even in its vanilla 16-bit form – brings its own magic to the mix. Kudos to the glorious timps and brass as well, especially in the witty and extrovert Musica permutatio.

This is yet another fine series that’s opened my ears to a composer whose music deserves to be more widely heard. And while I’m grateful to BIS, Frank and Frykberg for their early efforts on Larsson’s behalf, Manze has taken this repertoire to the next level. I realise this particular project is now complete – oddly, the final volume languished in CPO’s vaults for seven years – but I can only hope there’s more to come from this talented team. On the subject of wish lists, how about offering high-res downloads in future? That would be most welcome.

Manze and the Helsingborg Symphony set new standards in this music; a first-class recording, too.

Dan Morgan

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