Allan PETTERSSON (1911-1980)
Symphony No. 1 (performance edition by Christian Lindberg) (1951) [30:11]
Symphony No. 2 (1952-53) [46:45]
Norrköping Symphony/Christian Lindberg
rec. May-June 2010, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden. DDD
DVD documentary Pettersson First Symphony [77:54]
BIS-CD-1860 [76:56]

Allan PETTERSSON (1911-1980)
Eight Barefoot Songs (orch. Antal Doráti) (1943-45) [23:48]
Concerto No. 1 for string orchestra (1949-50) [20:41]
Concerto No. 2 for string orchestra (1956) [26:46]
Anders Larsson (baritone)
Nordic Chamber Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. March 2007, Tonhallen, Sundsvall, Sweden. DDD
BIS-CD-1690 [72:21]

Allan PETTERSSON (1911-1980)
Concerto No.3 for string orchestra (1956-57) [54:00]
Nordic Chamber Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. May 2006, HäggdÅnger Church, Hämösand, Sweden. DDD
BIS-CD-1590 [54:00]

These Bis recordings present aspects of early Pettersson from 1943 to 1957. The strongest contrast resides in the Barefoot Songs which are accessible in the sort of way celebrated by Björling.

The classical record industry has been riding a wave of reconstructions, realisations and orchestrations. These have been speculative in varying degrees. The appearance of various Elgar works including a Third Symphony and a not half bad Piano Concerto are part of the picture. Surely the Sixth Pomp and Circumstance – another Payne recovery - cannot be far distant. A very recent Dutton CD (CDLX 7281) of something sincerely approximating to a Moeran Second Symphony and an orchestration of John Ireland’s piano cycle, Sarnia. Before too long, at this rate we will hear similar realisations of Bax’s early teenage unorchestrated and unnumbered symphony not to mention a realisation of RVW’s Cello Concerto movement, William Schuman’s first two symphonies – each withdrawn and Shostakovich’s Sixteenth Symphony.

The Pettersson symphonies have been pretty much exhaustively documented by CPO in their boxed set. Others have contributed here and there including a substantial contingent from Bis who, more than a decade ago, issued Symphonies 8 and 10 with Segerstam on BIS-CD-880, Symphony 5/Viola Concerto (Moshe Atzmon) on BIS-CD-480 and Symphonies 7 and 11, again Segerstam, on BIS-CD-580. Bis plan to complete their Pettersson cycle with Lindberg and the Norrköping orchestra. Surely it cannot be too much to expect that this will extend to a completion – again presumably by Lindberg - of the Seventeenth Symphony, left incomplete by the composer at the time of his death..

The Pettersson First Symphony has been a thing of repute and fable for years. His first symphony has in effect been the Second Symphony – if you see what I mean – at least since No. 2 was recorded on LP in 1966 by Stig Westerberg and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Swedish Society Discofil LP SLT33219 – now reissued on CD as SCD1012). That Second Symphony came out at about the same time as the work that did put Pettersson on the map: his Symphony No. 7 SLT33194 now to be heard with the Sixteenth Symphony as SCD 1002.

The First Symphony as we discover it now, and as brought to performable state by Christian Lindberg, is a grave work which inhabits Pettersson’s accustomed niche for the angst-ridden and for tragic malcontents. It’s in a single span of half an hour – rather short for Pettersson; after all the Ninth is also in a single movement running well over 75 minutes. It’s an interesting experience and one that draws one into an emotional world familiar from the mature symphonies with occasional voices from the direction of Hindemith and Schoenberg. Towards the end, at about 27:30, something almost carefree enters the scene but this is soon transformed into the spiky and the scathing. The jewel case includes a second disc – a DVD with a documentary about the First Symphony and Lindberg’s work to prepare the score.

As to the Second Symphony this is its third recording. Alun Francis on CPO takes five minutes longer than Westerberg (SCD1012) yet neither seems unduly fast or unduly slow and Lindberg observes the same overall tempi as Francis. It’s by no means an easy listen – which of the Pettersson symphonies is? If you prefer a more possessed and fury-goaded performance then go for Westerberg’s analogue version on SCD1012.

This brace of separately available Bis CDs again from Lindberg is not the first recording of the three Concertos for String Orchestra. That honour falls to a 1993 CPO boxed set (999 225-2) where Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss is conducted by Johannes Goritzki. Goritzki and Lindberg hit the same tempo for the Second Concerto while the first and third are respectively 4 and 5 minutes quicker in the hands of Lindberg than in the hands of Goritzki. Take your pick. Goritzki gives rein to the epic side of the Pettersson manner while Lindberg is more intense. The Third Concerto at 54 minutes has the extended reach of one of the symphonies.

The First and Second Concertos are compact pieces - brief for Pettersson. The former is full of flickering activity and mercurial seething detail. It feels constantly in action and never boring. It makes time amid great thrumming assaults for poetic asides and for his favourite soliloquies for solo instruments. You will enjoy this if you like a rather burly Tippett-like approach to music-making. His insistent obsessions verging on hysteria begin to appear in the middle of No. 1. It’s powerful stuff with darting surreal rushing and zigzagging energy. There’s truly inventive string writing in the finale complete with slurred birdsong on in the finale. No. 2 comes between the Third Symphony and the Third Concerto. It has a less ingratiating and creatively active surface. Still touched with dissonance it is again thoughtful and touching in the middle movement where the listener seems to be taken on a conducted tour of a dimly gaslit street in slowed motion.

The Bis Lindberg has the inestimable supplement of the Eight Barefoot Songs as orchestrated by Antal Dorati - himself a composer. Dorati it was whose recording of the ineffably disturbing beauty of the Seventh Symphony carried Pettersson’s name across the world in the late 1960s. It was the key to his cult following. The songs extracted from the 24 he wrote in 1943-45 for voice and piano are sturdily sung by the baritone Anders Larsson. Their style is closer to Swedish ‘romans’ than to the tortured soul although I noticed several links back to Mahler as in the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen. The original 1974 recording of these songs on LP (Lyssna 4 and HNH4003-4) by Erik Saeden and the Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by Dorati has never been reissued.

These songs have a simplicity and lyrical directness one would not immediately expect from the symphonies. In fact lyrical ideas abound in the symphonies amid the groaning insistence, mesmerising granitic ostinatos and tragic upheaval. Here we encounter an almost Neapolitan emotionalism with a sentimental tear or two. Larsson has that lean baritone ring that makes these songs reach out and embrace. The orchestral tissue is most skilfully and touchingly done. The spirit of eerie witchery can be heard in the fourth song which recalls El amor brujo. This sequence belong with the great songs of Sibelius, Nystroem (who had two concertos for strings – 1930, 1955 - to his name) and Rangstrom.

The complementary notes for all three discs are by Michael Kube and are in English, Swedish, German and French.

There we have it then: a monumentally important first recording for a reconstruction of Pettersson’s First Symphony alongside fresh elite recordings of the three Concertos for Strings.

Rob Barnett

A monumentally important first recording for a reconstruction of Pettersson’s first symphony and fresh elite recordings of the three Concertos for Strings.