The game of Leif

CBSO/Segerstam | Symphony Hall, Birmingham
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The Independent Culture

Leif Segerstam is a giant of a man, in more ways than one. His huge frame, weaving a cumbersome way through desks of violins, conceals a mind working on overdrive. Just before the millennium it laid him up in hospital, after a summer in which he wrote, in his special shorthand, nine symphonies. The result of this break was another, his 35th, just premiered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Since then, motor recharged, he has run off another 23.

Leif Segerstam is a giant of a man, in more ways than one. His huge frame, weaving a cumbersome way through desks of violins, conceals a mind working on overdrive. Just before the millennium it laid him up in hospital, after a summer in which he wrote, in his special shorthand, nine symphonies. The result of this break was another, his 35th, just premiered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Since then, motor recharged, he has run off another 23.

The quantity of Segerstam's symphonies (Mahler, one of his idols, wrote just 10; Brahms, whom he has played on film - his magnificent mane makes him a perfect lookalike - kept it to four) need not mean triteness. Segerstam sees an analogy in the music of Vivaldi: thus his symphonies recycle related material, the same sound world rooted in the Nordic landscape he observes from where he composes, 150 miles north of Helsinki: part raw and cataclysmic, part breathtakingly serene. When serenity presides, as at the start of Symphony No 17, or the exquisite violin solo that launches No 14, Segerstam produces stunningly beautiful sounds.

Recently, he has experimented with allowing the orchestra to play unconducted (another baroque analogy), and the players took up the gauntlet. From the gorgeous violin tones of co-leader Jacqueline Hartley to the double basses and tuba, the easy chamber quality was amazing. They might have been playing jazz.

The new symphony takes the form of a series of flashbacks, in which material from the previous nine is viewed in the telescoped recall of a hospitalised person. It is full of rippling detail, but short on memorable moments. The crux, 17 minutes in, where the strings gather into a clustering sunset, is a gorgeous surprise; but it emerges from a lot of murk, in which the piano that Segerstam favours tends to be an irritant. Nor does the free-time element allowed each player produce the liquid contrasts of, say, Lutoslawski.

In characterising his music, Segerstam talks of granite, both massy and molten. This symphony gave us more of the massive than the melting.

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