Segerstam Contrasts His Work With Brahms


BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2. SEGERSTAM: Symphony No. 289, “When a Cat Visited” / Turku Philharmonic Orchestra; Leif Segerstam, conductor / Alba ABCD 403

I was a great Leif Segerstam fan during the 1970s, and in fact wrote an article about it which you can access here, but my life and job (I never had a “career,” just a string of low-paying jobs) got in the way of my following him again for more than a decade, and when I came back to him he was established much more as a composer of traditional works—primarily Sibelius symphonies, but also other music—in what struck me as extremely leisurely tempi.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that the Brahms Second that opens this CD is on the same level of quickness heard in the classic accounts of Felix Weingartner (my favorite), Arturo Toscanini-NBC or Charles Munch, but within his leisurely tempo Segerstam does not let the music drag very badly, and there is enough clarity of the wind and string figures that one is satisfied by the result. I particularly liked the way he brought out the syncopated figures in the first movement—always tricky to play properly—and also the way the back-of-the-melody wind figures kept popping out and making themselves heard. These were nice touches that added to my enjoyment of what I feel is Brahms’ dullest symphony. It also doesn’t help that Segerstam takes EVERY damn repeat, to the point where you start thinking, “Enough already! I’ve heard this before!” But this is really just in the first movement, which clocks in at an astounding 22 minutes, and the second, which runs 11:47. Once he moves on, the other movements seems to whip by at a good pace.

We then move into his own most recent symphony, numbered 289 and subtitled “When a Cat Visited.” For the explanation of this symphony’s title, I must quote Segerstam himself from the booklet because if I paraphrased him you might not believe me:

In Vienna’s Spanish riding school there was a cat poster, seeming the same cat as the one visiting us in Suonenjoki, just an ordinary one but supercute…and a cat is always a cat and it makes its movings around with its own will deciding, and so it felt the tones behaved when they were born onto the notating sheets of scorepaper, one should just follow the track made with the paws and then at the end enjoy the purring motor…

I feel I have believed and obeyed the freemasonmaster’s last compulsary advice and suggestion in the closing repliques of his [Sibelius’] final 7th sin-fonia: there he heralds RE-DO, SI-DO!!! which translated to English means are you ready? look then…! Every Tone shall Live and Sound with the meaning it is chosen form because: Music is not THAT-WHICH-SOUNDS, Music is: WHY!!!! THAT-WHICH –SOUNDS sounds like it sounds, WHEN! it sounds!!

And there you have it, straight from the composer himself. Translated into musical terms, this is not as loud or heavy as many of his previous symphonies, but rather a transparent work centered around a persistent, droning A, which makes it as close to a tonal center as you are likely to get from Segerstam. His appearance may have changed drastically since the 1970s but not his musical mind, which is as curious about the juxtaposition of sound as ever and just as intense in his expression and interpretation. Segerstam’s music is indeed dense and modern, but it is not cold; on the contrary, there always seems to be an undercurrent of tension, and occasionally menace, in every bar he writes. Inner voices seem to be trying to scratch and claw their way to the surface here…perhaps the scratching of a cat’s paws? Whatever the situation, I can assure you that none of my three cats enjoyed it half as much as I did. It may be based on a “cat experience,” but it’s geared towards a human mind. Cats are singularly indifferent to its appeal, especially the rattling percussion passages. Cats don’t do percussion. They like soothing flute, harp and string music, which is why they listen to our local classical music station in the morning.

As a final footnote, I used to joke that once Segerstam grew his beard and put on weight, he resembled Brahms. Here on the cover of this CD we have photos of both of them next to each other, and although Segerstam has a somewhat less prominent nose and his eyes are at a slightly different angle, they DO resemble one another. They look like brothers!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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