Pettersson’s Ninth Symphony was written at a time when he was not only suffering from a long-standing rheumatic condition, but also an undiagnosed kidney disease. He completed the score of this massive one-movement work in less than six months before he was admitted to hospital, where he was not expected to survive. It therefore seems that the composer may have regarded this symphony as his final musical testament. In the event he wrote a further seven symphonies after his recovery, and started work on another. It is an enormous work both musically and emotionally. Like Mahler’s Ninth, a work similarly written under the shadow of the composer’s anticipated imminent death, the symphony is hardly a bundle of laughs, any more than we should expect it to be. Similarly like Mahler’s Ninth, there is a sense of resistance and dogged determination which has its own life-affirming qualities even in the midst of tragedy.
The construction of the work contrasts non-tonal dissonant sections with clearly tonally orientated ones, even when the harmonic modulations are sometimes unexpected. BIS earn our gratitude for providing tracking entry points at intervals during the long single movement which contains references to cue points in the orchestral score. In the end it is the tonal elements which are victorious, even if it is a victory that is hard-won. However the clear progress of the music is always evident, never degenerating into sheer emotionalism or striving for effect. Some passages of the music, notably the persistent side drum rhythms, remind one somewhat of Havergal Brian among English composers, with the same sense of gritty progress especially during the closing passage of track 3. At other points the side-drum ostinati recall Nielsen (as at track 4, 5.00), although the musical argument remains very much Pettersson’s own.
This is not the first recording of Pettersson’s Ninth Symphony to appear in the catalogues – there was a 1977 set of LPs conducted by Sergiu Comissiona, who commissioned the work and gave its first performance. A CD recording under Alun Francis surfaced on CPO in 1995. Paul Rapoport, reviewing the latter in Fanfare, complained that both the earlier recordings suffered from a lack of the desirable massed string tone. One can see why this might cause a problem: Pettersson demands from his violins extended passages in the highest register which sound horrendously difficult to play and doubtless stretch players to their limits. Aided by the excellent recording from BIS, these Norrköping strings sound – if not totally at ease (for example at track 7, 4.00 and 5.12) – well-attuned to the composer’s demands, always precisely focused and clear. Only in one or two places (as at track 8, 3.00) might one possibly have wished for a bit more body to the sound, but this is never a serious concern.
The multi-talented Christian Lindberg here continues his cycle of Pettersson symphonies for BIS. A review of an earlier issue in the series quoted in the booklet remarked that his “affinity with Pettersson’s idiom is manifest”. One can only agree. The booklet note by Per-Henning Olsson also notes that at the time of Comissiona’s première performance “the orchestra had not really completed the task of learning the piece”. This is most certainly not the case here. That admission might however explain why the Comissiona’s performance took over eighty minutes, an amazing twenty minutes or so longer than this recording. Lindberg’s swifter traversal pays ample dividends, because the organic shape of the single movement is clearer as a consequence. The sense of overwhelming despair, of which earlier critics complained, is now replaced by a sense of defiance which makes the music sound less emotionally self-indulgent.
As a recording of Pettersson’s Ninth Symphony this is now clearly the version of choice.
What makes this disc even more desirable is the documentary DVD which accompanies it, “generously sponsored” by the conductor himself. The Swedish television film is given in that language, but English subtitles are provided. Mind you, the documentary itself is a pretty depressing experience. The greater part of its length is taken up with reminiscences by Pettersson of his deprived childhood, plagued by neglect. It is not surprising - if only half the stories are true - that he clearly has a gigantic chip on his shoulder about this. It obviously left him with a major problem with his social skills; he devotes some time to complaints that his viola teacher in Paris abandoned him when the Germans invaded the city in 1940, leaving him to find his own way home to Sweden, without the slightest realisation that the teacher may have had other things on his mind at the time. He also complains bitterly about his isolation in later life, without the thought arising that a man crippled with rheumatism might be better situated almost anywhere except in a noisy flat on the fourth floor without a lift. It comes as a positive relief at the end when we see him moving into a bungalow, although he complains about the business of the removal too, telling his long-suffering wife to keep an eye on the furniture men. He obviously has a social conscience, reading and setting poetry about cruelty and deprivation with great sympathy; but when confronted with real people he is at once withdrawn and arrogant in tone, totally self-absorbed in his own woes. In an English language contribution, Sergei Comissiona describes his attitude as “cruel”. I would analyse it rather as the behaviour of a man in constant physical pain but too pathologically proud to admit that he stands in need of help, let alone to ask for it. Given the need for self-reliance forced upon him by his experiences in early life, this can be understood only too well.
Unfortunately we are given little opportunity in this documentary to hear the music itself: Carl Johan Falkman performs a couple of songs (very well), and we are shown excerpts from performances of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Symphonies, rather scrappily played by very bored-looking players. We are shown no footage of the inter-relationship of the composer with his performers, and Pettersson himself tells us almost nothing about the music. It is left to Christian Lindberg, in an English-language introduction to the documentary, to make the parallels between Pettersson and Mahler. The latter had to wait some fifty years after his death before his symphonies became acknowledged as masterpieces; Lindberg hopes that his performances will similarly help to establish Pettersson as a major symphonic composer. The recording on the CD should certainly help to do that.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~~ Rob Barnett