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Allan PETTERSSON (1911-1980)
The Sixteen Symphonies
Peter RUZICKA (b. 1948)
… das Gesegnete, das Verflüchte (1991) [13:44]
Various Artists
rec. 1984, 1988, 1991-95, 2004. ADD/DDD
CPO 777 247-2 [12 CDs: 57:11 + 78:21 + 65:24 + 60:38 + 44:35 + 50:24 + 69:52 + 52:45 + 53:05 + 67:03 + 47:00 + 52:24]

Symphonic Movement (1973) [10:53]
Symphony no 2 (1953) [46:23]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Alun Francis
Symphony no 3 (1955) [39:38]
Symphony no 4 (1959) [38:25]
Saar Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alun Francis
Symphony no 5 (1960-62) [40:51]
Symphony no 16 for saxophone and orchestra (1979) [24:23]
John-Edward Kelly (alto saxophone)
Saar Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alun Francis
Symphony no 6 (1963-66) [60:38]
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Manfred Trojahn
Symphony no 7 (1966-67) [44:35]
Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerd Albrecht
Symphony no 8 (1968-69) [50:24]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling
Symphony no 9 (1970-72) [69:52]
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Alun Francis
Symphony no 10 (1970-72) [27:10]
Symphony no 11 (1974) [25:30]
Hannover Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Alun Francis
Symphony no 12 De Döda på Torget (The dead in the square) (1974) [53:05]
Swedish Radio Chorus; Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
Symphony no 13 (1976) [67:03]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Alun Francis
Symphony no 14 (1978) [47:00]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Johan Arnell
Symphony no 15 (1978) [38:18]

Pettersson on the Web

How often have I made the rather obvious point that the CD has devastatingly increased the recorded repertoire. Whether it is cause and effect is debatable.

In the case of Allan Pettersson we need to bear in mind that there were quite a few Pettersson LPs in the period 1960-1980, particularly during the mid-late 1970s. The enlightened attitude of the Swedish recording industry and arts establishment was crucial. This chimed well with Pettersson's archetypically pessimistic-tragedian language touching sympathetically resonating nerves. We should also remember the pioneering work of the conductors Dorati and Westerberg and overwhelmingly the Romanian-American conductor Sergiu Comissiona (1928-2005) who made gave many of the premieres and whose recordings form part of the vinyl legacy.

The main Pettersson symphony LPs were:-

Mesto for strings - Swedish RSO/Stig Westerberg. Swedish Society Discfil SLT 33203. September 1960

Symphony No. 2 - Swedish RSO/Stig Westerberg. Swedish Society Discofil SLT 33219. 6-11 March 1966

Symphony No. 7- Stockholm PO/Antal Dorati. Swedish Society Discofil SLT 33194. 18-19 September 1969

Symphony No. 6. Norrkopping SO/Okko Kamu. CBS 76553. 11 April 1976.

Symphony No. 9. Goteborg SO/Sergiu Comissiona. Philips 6767 951. 8-10 June 1977.

Symphony No. 8. Baltimore SO/Sergiu Comissiona. DG 2531 176. 1980.

Symphony No. 4. Goteborg SO/Sergiu Comissiona. BIS 5 LP set. LP-301/303. recorded 5 February 1970. issued 1985.

It's quite a list and I am not by any means sure that it is complete. Only numbers 2 and 7 from this list have been reissued on CD

CPO have the hard-won distinction of issuing the first CD intégrale of the symphonies of Allan Pettersson. It has been a long slog. Their first Pettersson symphony disc came out in 1984. Their last (No. 12) appeared very recently. We should not forget that they have also recorded many other Pettersson works – most recently a second recording of the Violin Concerto No. 2.

Pettersson was a modern romantic. Romantic in that the music conveys an interior and very personal world. One senses a psychological pilgrimage or passage of arms. As a romantic his music is not to be compared for example with that of Atterburg. There is no pastoral relaxation, no folk influence and no flicker of humour unless it is the skull’s vacant leer. He has some superficial kinship with Fartein Valen and Harald Saeverud. He is ‘modern’ in that the music exploits dissonance when it serves the composer’s purpose. There is no systematic adherence to serial technique or 12-tone dogma. It is instead fraught with anxiety - tense, distraught, turbulent, drained of relief, buffeted, grievously wounded, tortured by outrageous fortune, excoriating but singing with hard-won hope. This pessimism is in line with the Nordic stereotype – or caricature - but its redemptive power and the reason why people are drawn back to these scores is the composer’s ability to draw a tearful serene epiphany out of exhaustion and a battered spirit. This speaks to the experience of many in the last century though Pettersson’s suffering arose from his paralysing illness, his meagre family circumstances and the neglect of his music.

His way with small rhythmic motifs, repeated in a non-minimalist way is part of his sound autograph. These often are set off like little automata in a sort of ‘oompah’ habanera and then fade and fall. Similar DNA strands include the screaming and protesting strings and groaning and agonised brass. The lachrymose and fragile yet enduring blessing of a long-limbed Pettersson melody will be what has you going back to these scores. They are much stronger than the fashionable following they attracted in the 1970s and 1980s and this is your chance to find that out.

Will you take to him? First of all you have to hear him. I recommend that you persist with the Seventh Symphony which at 44:35 is by no means his longest. It ends in a high-whistling benediction of a melody that is haunting in its crushing emotional power. It is quite simply one of the largely unsung wonders of Western classical music. There is perhaps a little of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs about that miraculously sustained finale. Then again you get some idea of the idiom by trying the ten minute Symphonic Movement on the first disc. However while you can hear the Pettersson manner, the substance and its emotional range mean that there is no substitute for experiencing a complete symphony. That has to be the Seventh – that’s the one that Antal Dorati recorded in the 1960s. That Dorati recording, still available on Swedish Society Discofil – carried Pettersson’s name far and wide and won new friends for him across the world. It remains the best version although Albrecht is very good.

The First Symphony was destroyed so the first viable one and the first to be recorded was the Second. It dates from his years studying with René Leibowitz in Paris. It is of about the same span as the Seventh and is also in his hallmark single movement format. Searing Tchaikovskian strings pass like wraiths from the Pathetique. They are dowsed in the acid rain of Bergian lyricism and the devastation and upheaval of the Fourth symphonies of Sibelius and Shostakovich. There is some balm in Gilead but here it does not flow like honey and when it comes it is brutally shrivelled. A sharp thrust from the trumpets ushers the work towards its close. CPO competes with the Swedish Society Discofil’s SCD 1012 – the 1966 analogue recording. Francis takes five minutes longer than Westerberg over the symphony yet neither seems unduly fast or unduly slow.

The Third Symphony is divided into movements; the only one of the symphonies to follow this pattern apart from the Eighth. After the first movement the remaining three are linked attacca. The first is alive with fast-trudging ruthless ostinati and upheaval and is followed by the desolation of a Largo with a trademark flute solo singing emotional emptiness over the murmuring deep strings. The allegro commodo third movement at times sounds like a 20th century Tasso’s ride. The finale - in language proclaiming connective tissue with Prokofiev 6 – sinks into a shimmering discontent punctuated with defiant little troika cells. Of about the same duration is the Fourth Symphony which has been available before on LP as part of a Bis LP set. CPO have tracked this in five segments with the longest being 26:02 (Andante espressivo) which serves as a second movement of sorts. It features a rural hymn-like melody occasionally chaffed by nightmare creatures taking the form of rhythmic protesting fanfares – a distorted echo of Beethoven’s fate motif.

These are the only CD recordings of the Third and Fourth symphonies and they can still be tracked down separately on CPO999 223-2.

Pettersson's Fifth was the last symphony he was able to write out in his own hand before crippling polyarthritis struck home. It is in his accustomed, massive, single movement pattern and is his first truly mature work. It opens in the quietest of whispering mysteries, punctuated with stabbing figures, tolling and tumultuous brass and strange bird and insect calls. The symphony marks his middle period spanned by symphonies 5-9 of which all but No. 8 (in two movements) are monoliths.

The Sixth Symphony has been recorded before but only on LP. It plays for just over an hour and only the Ninth and the Thirteenth were to be longer. The Ninth is the longest. The material for the Sixth Symphony is drawn from the last of his 24 Barefoot Songs. That song He can put out my little light is not heard until the last twenty minutes of the symphony which are the most lyrical. The work attains a crippled majesty at 24:20 after continuously tortured material. The music seems to open the wound and allow the listener to look into and witness the hurt. It becomes meditative aided by those reticent bass ostinati which lend the work forward momentum. Interesting at 50:00 onwards to hear those punched out hammer-blows recalling similar impacts in the symphonies of Hilding Rosenberg – especially the Sixth.

The note-writer for the CPO version of the Seventh Symphony describes it as ‘by no means a cheerful work’. At 3:12 we hear for the first time the mournful little troika ostinato played by the deep brass that is to buoy and goad the work to its conclusion. Torturous and protesting writing for the brass rises chorale like, ill-formed yet deliberately so – eloquent in tragedy. We might hear shades of Shostakovich in the long caustically singing lines. In the repetition we may hear the seeds of trance-like concentration and in the long-limbed searing theme the voice of Pettersson singing a lonely consolation and healing from 42:23 to the close.

The Eighth Symphony was first recorded by pioneer Sergiu Comissiona on a Polar/DG LP but never reissued. It was premiered in Baltimore in October 1977. Pettersson's chorales are one of his trademarks: a fingerprint. They are prominent in the Eighth Symphony. A long calmly confident line expands freely and stretches its wings across the massive framework of this diptychal symphony (21:46 + 28:32). Little surges, shudders and currents disturb the calm and nightmare scenes intrude. Thomas Sanderling does not keep things moving as effectively as Segerstam on his Bis recording. There is always a temptation towards meandering with Pettersson. The second ‘panel’ is riven with conflict. The symphony ends amid a raw lyricism comparable with that of the Seventh. The work gently moves down the gradient to silence.

The Ninth Symphony is his longest at circa 70 minutes. It is also in a single movement. CPO have helpfully allocated this 17 tracks so students can the more easily examine its structure. This is aided by music examples and commentary by Andreas K W Meyer alongside a timeline and quotations from the composer. The music is restless and tense. Pettersson fingerprints are there to be heard including those downward punching ostinati (trs. 6, 17). A sauntering version of the troika from the Seventh Symphony can be heard in tr. 10. This a statuesque symphony here enjoying its only CD recording.

The Tenth is a vortex of despair and violence. Pettersson said that this symphony and its successor were written ‘in the tunnel of death’ during a nine month period in hospital in 1970. It could not have been produced without Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, nor without Shostakovich's bleaker symphonies but the sound remains essentially very much Pettersson's own. Great themes rear up constantly through the screaming agonised brass. The crippled splendour of the music is accessible. The rhythmic contour frequently reaches back to Beethoven’s fate motif. An almost Bach-like theme winds in and out of the last half of the symphony; typical Pettersson. Segerstam on Bis is a minute and a half quicker and you feel this invigorating acceleration in the first 10 minutes of the symphony where Segerstam keeps pressing forward almost impatiently. Francis seems to have a better handle on the work. Frankly though, either will satisfy and neither strikes me subjectively as a distortion or unrepresentative. The booklet cautiously recounts a possibly apocryphal story that sections of this symphony were written out on bandages and dressings which became part of Pettersson's daily life from the Fifth Symphony onwards as arthritis took its toll.

The Eleventh opens in gentle spirit but soon feels the siren call of Gehenna. It is turbulent but without the sustained rip-tide of its predecessor. Great striding themes claw heavenwards through oceans of strident clamorous sound. One of these themes closes the symphony which ends as if brutally cut off in mid-step: not for Pettersson any conventional finishing flourish; again typical of the composer.

The Tenth and Eleventh are single movement pieces but CPO – ever sympathetic to the student – have allocated five tracks to each to aid navigation and assimilation.

The Twelfth De Döda på Torget is his only choral symphony. It sets poems by Pablo Neruda in nine movements. The words are given in full but only in Swedish and German – no other translations. It seems that there were legal obstacles to reproducing the Spanish originals and English translations. The choral writing recalls Tippett’s in A Child of Our Time – often touched with desperation as the deaths and injustices perpetrated in Chile are tracked as emblematic of social injustices on an international stage. The searing tortured string writing combines seamlessly with the singing in the sixth movement. Fascinating to have the solo violin adding its voice to the progress of the finale. The Twelfth Symphony although taken up with a specific atrocity by the Chilean authorities in 1946 was written in the wake of the deposing of the Socialist president of Chile Salvador Allende in 1973.

The Thirteenth is two minutes short of the Ninth Symphony’s duration. Its composition came at a time of increasing wealth for the composer. He had received a stipend of 10,000 Swedish crowns from the Swedish copyright organisation. There were to be 25,000 crowns for the Thirteenth Symphony from the Bergen Festival. It is a dense and complex work – not the place to start out with Pettersson! It is as if he is making up for the directness of speech in the Twelfth Symphony. The language is the usual restless combination of angst, fear and ominous reflection which is only redeemed in the work’s last ten minutes with a powerful rather than whispered blessing of a melody carried by the piercing strings and of course bearing a tragic and restless payload.

The Fourteenth Symphony is another single movement work; this time of 47 minutes duration. Both Arnell on CPO and Comissiona on Phono-Suecia take about the same time. The CD format has been kind to Pettersson permitting his monolith symphonies a single uninterrupted listening experience. This has been the upside. It was written the year after the Second Violin Concerto – recorded by Ida Haendel and also on Phono-Suecia (and now on CPO as well) - and the year before the Sixteenth Symphony. It dates from the same year Pettersson also wrote the Fifteenth Symphony. The CPO is of Arnell conducting the German premiere of the work and the recording has some analogue hiss to remind us of its age: 1988.

From the first instant you are left in no doubt that this is a serious piece. It protests and laments, screeches and bellows. Tension rises and is sustained almost unbearably and then slackened off into great arioso valleys. I am not sure how well it all coheres and the ending strikes me as suspect. However there is some extraordinarily excoriating writing along the way. The effect, as with so much Pettersson, is of an agonising and scouring abrasion. There is nothing belligerently atonal about it but the racking conflict leaves its dissonant mark. It is a fine work that speaks with superior conviction and deserves to stand in the magisterial company of the Seventh Symphony.

The Fifteenth Symphony is from the same year as its predecessor and the Second Violin Concerto. Again it is in a single movement which CPO have tracked into five elegiac, angry and scouringly poignant sections which end on a surprisingly Sibelian dazzle from the violins.

The coupling for No. 15 is Düsseldorf-born Peter Ruzicka’s … das Gesegnete, das Verflüchte, which the composer terms his Pettersson Requiem. The style is close to Pettersson’s with references to symphonies 14 and 15. I reviewed Ruzicka’s Celan Symphony in 2005 and at that time noted the Petterssonian sound of his more tortured climactic writing.

The Sixteenth Symphony was written in the same year as another concertante work: the Viola Concerto. There is little peace in it. A furious angst is alleviated by a second movement producing another of those blessed Pettersson melody-laments. It is amongst his finest examples. This repose which is almost Bachian is surely what he envisioned for himself ... This is a very tuneful score and one of Pettersson's most accessible. Those who have enjoyed other modern saxophone concertos would do well to try it.

I am not sure how much of the incomplete Seventeenth Symphony exists but surely it is time someone was engaged to complete or ‘realise’ it.

This set follows the now classic pattern for a CPO box: strong price discount (circa 5.80 per disc), light card box – a casualty in waiting - and heat-sealed shrink-wrap. Otherwise it’s the original single issue CDs reached down off the warehouse shelf and shuffled into the box. This is not a typical EMI or Brilliant Classics wallet issue. Nothing amiss with that. The liner-notes are inside each of the twelve cases.

One symphony is played by Pettersson’s compatriots, two by the BBC’s Scottish radio orchestra and the rest by German orchestras. All but one of these were recorded pre-1995; the only exception being the most recently issued: No. 12 – which would have been the trigger for the collection. Alun Francis, whose modest media presence belies his magnificent contribution especially in the field of recorded music, is the mainstay here. He conducts symphonies 2-5, 9-11, 13, 16. The others are shared between Peter Ruzicka, Johan Arnell, Manfred Honeck, Thomas Sanderling, Gerd Albrecht and Manfred Trojahn; the first and last being composers. Symphonies 8 and 14 are in ADD sound.

Of course you can still get the individual discs and some have been reviewed on this site. I have drawn on those reviews for some of the material in this piece.

This set is to be welcomed at so many levels. Pettersson’s voice can be sensed as a significant one. There is little in the way of a performance tradition and recordings, broadcasts and concerts are still unusual. This CPO box offers a unique insight into the music and will aid its cautiously growing reputation.

Rob Barnett

A significant and sensitive voice that continues to resonate and hold redemptive power … the composer’s ability to draw a tearful serene epiphany out of exhaustion and a battered spirit. ... see Full Review


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