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Allan PETTERSSON (1911-1980)
Symphony No. 1 - Performing edition by Christian Lindberg from the original, incomplete score (1951-) [30:11]
Symphony No. 2 (1952-1953) [46:45]
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. May-June 2010, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
Reviewed as 24-bit/44.1kHz download
BIS BIS-CD-1860 [77:54]
Symphony No. 6 (1963-1966) [59:18]
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. January 2012, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
Reviewed as 24-bit/96kHz download
BIS BIS-SACD-1980 [59:18]
Symphony No. 9 (1970)
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. January 2013, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
Reviewed as 24-bit/96kHz download
BIS BIS-SACD-2038 [69:40]

Traversals of 20th- and 21st-century music from the far north are what BIS do best. In particular I commend their invaluable Kalevi Aho and Vagn Holmboe projects; the latter is now offered as a cut-price bundle on, just one of many tempting offers on that site. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I reviewed Pettersson’s Symphonies 1, 2 and 6 for Brian Wilson’s Download Roundup last year; I am now appending my thoughts on No. 9, the latest in a fine series that aims to include Christian Lindberg's completion of No. 17. That will make BIS's cycle the first truly 'complete' one, thus trumping the multi-conductor, multi-orchestra CPO set.
Symphonies 1 and 2 are sourced from 44.1kHz originals, but as I’ve discovered with so many recordings from this source they often sound very good indeed. The latest Aho release (review) and the final instalment in Mark Wigglesworth’s Shostakovich cycle (review) are prime examples of this. It goes without saying that sound quality isn’t everything, and it matters even less when the performances are something special; very occasionally, as in the recent Sakari Oramo/Stockholm Nielsen Fourth and Fifth symphonies, neither is quite up to snuff (review).
BIS have recorded nearly all of Pettersson’s symphonies, including his delayed breakthrough, the Seventh (1966-1967). It’s unusual for a composer to achieve success so late in life, but then this intense soul had plenty to contend with, not least the rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease that plagued him towards the end. These vicissitudes encourage one to listen to this music as autobiography, hence epithets such as 'dismal' and 'dreary', 'grinding' and 'grim'; yes, Pettersson often comes across as stark and unremitting, yet it's the ambitious design of these symphonies that always impresses me most. That's not to devalue their deeply personal content, but merely to suggest that there's a technical prowess here that deserves respect and attention as well.

In his excellent liner-notes Michael Kube describes the incomplete score of Pettersson’s First Symphony as an ‘extensive torso’, although reading further it becomes clear that creating a performing version of the work was far from easy. Undaunted, trombonist, composer and conductor Christian Lindberg took on the task, leading to this world-premiere recording. As with many of Pettersson’s symphonies this one is set in a single movement; and while it’s essentially tonal there’s a density of specification that makes for a highly individual work and an absorbing listen. Indeed, those expecting an uncompromising piece will be pleasantly surprised by a vein of lyricism; even more appealing is the richness and variety of Pettersson’s colour palette, details of which are well caught in this clear and dynamic recording. In fact, it’s very hard to believe this is a humble Red Book original, which just reinforces the point I made earlier.
The Second Symphony is no less engaging and pliable; textures are perhaps leaner - there’s some piquant writing for brass that reminded me of Bartók’s Bluebeard - and dynamic contrasts are much stronger. There are passages of startling beauty and depth of feeling as well, and it’s all played with great refinement and a sure sense of the work’s evolving architecture. Even outbursts - just listen to the rumble of bass drum and sting of cymbals - seem proportionate and not in the least overbearing. It’s a remarkably assured piece, and it’s also superbly recorded. Anyone hearing these two works for the first time will surely want to hear more, especially when the performances are as authoritative and committed as this.
That said, the Sixth Symphony, written over four years, is more of a challenge; it’s long - the single span lasts an hour - and there's a powerful sense of the music being kept on a rolling boil. Writing of such subdued contrast may seem monochromatic to some, but listen closely and you'll be astonished by Pettersson's subtle colouring and fine detail. Struggle and disquiet loom large, especially in those strange tuttis and extended meditations, but the overwhelming impression is of a symphony whose objective method is even more gripping than its subjective content. In any event Lindberg holds it all together with great skill, and the recording is wonderfully immersive.
One might expect the Ninth Symphony to fit the overworked stereotype of Pettersson as self-absorbed - even self-pitying. Completed just before a lengthy stay in hospital the piece is characterised by an unexpected freshness, transparency and timbral variety. In that sense it’s not unlike Shostakovich’s Ninth, which also has no truck with the misplaced expectations of a monumental No. 9. Set in a sequence of linked movements it flows freely, and one's attention is never diverted or dammed along the way. Don’t expect elemental fury or titanic shifts, for this is music of containment; paradoxical as it may seem, it's also possessed of a dour charm. Only the last three sections are genuinely disconcerting; there too Pettersson uses his percussive armoury - the snare and bass drums especially - sparingly and to powerful emotional effect.
Lindberg and his orchestra drill straight to the core of these symphonies, and I suspect the fine acoustic of Norrköping’s Louis de Geer Concert Hall contributes in no small measure to the spacious, quietly spectacular sonics of all three releases. Balances are entirely natural and there’s a pleasing tactility to the sound that will surely please the audiophiles; just sample the dark, menacing conclusion to the Ninth, with its march-to-the-scaffold-like taunt of brass and fright of drums. Even here Pettersson doesn’t overplay his hand, and the muted finale is all the more poignant for that. Really, there’s so much to savour, not least the thrill of an orchestra playing with such poise and passion.
Music of quiet strength and stamina, persuasively played; great engineering, too.
Dan Morgan  

Previous reviews  
Symphonies 1 and 2
Symphony 6
Symphony 9