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Allan PETTERSSON (1911-1980)
Symphony No. 13 (1976) [66:46]
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. January 2015, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
BIS BIS-2190 SACD [66:46]

Symphony No. 4 (1959) [37:27]
Symphony No. 16 (1979) [26:57]
Jörgen Pettersson (alto saxophone)
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. January 2013, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
BIS BIS-2110 SACD [65:13]

BIS's unswerving devotion to the symphonies of Allan Pettersson is matched by that of Christian Lindberg and Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. By the end of 2018 there will be a boxed set to vie with the multi-conductor, radio orchestra one from CPO. You can read more about that here. The Bis Pettersson edition includes symphonies not part of the CPO set as well as valuable, although overlapping, documentary programmes absent from the CPO cycle.

As with many of Pettersson's symphonies the Thirteenth presents a forbidding face. The music immediately launches into a heaving cauldron of torment and resentment relieved by strangely peaceful episodes suggestive of Reger-Bach (tr. 1 2:18; tr. 7; tr. 11). Often we are propelled into what feels like an orchestrated extended groan or a menagerie of nightmare creatures. I mentioned peaceful episodes but Pettersson then harries you away into discontent and toward something ill-defined yet alarming. His hallmarks are in plentiful evidence: galloping and moaning brass, iterations of disturbing little note-cells and drumbeats looking for but not finding a march. Pettersson's own instrument, the viola can be heard at length, given eloquent voice at tr. 10: a singer under towering clouds. There's a looming cathedral of singing violin sound in tr. 11 which almost makes contact with Barber's Adagio. At the end even that is snatched away and we are brought back to a despairing vortex punctuated by violent timpani and protesting strings, all this under intense pressurised strain. In the last few bars there is just a hint of triumph from the brass but it is far from unequivocal.

While Symphony No. 13 is a single epic movement Bis have helped dedicated Pettersson listeners by laying it out in 12 tracks:-

1. Beginning [5:06]
2. 5 bars after Fig.15 [6:27]
3. 3 bars after Fig.35 [11:30]
4. 5 bars after Fig.70 (Tempo I) [5:13]
5. 3 bars before Fig.87 [3:52]
6. 4 bars before Fig.99 [9:43]
7. 5 bars after Fig.128 [6:50]
8. 4 bars after Fig.152 [3:02]
9. 3 bars after Fig.165 (Tempo I) [1:17]
10. 4 bars after Fig.169 [1:41]
11. 5 bars after Fig.174 [7:43]
12. 4 bars after Fig.194 [3:44]

Included with BIS-2110 (Symphonies 4/16) is a DVD: Vem fan är Allan Pettersson? (‘Who the hell is Allan Pettersson?’). This is a 52-minute interview made in colour in 1974 for Swedish Television just before a rare performance of the Tenth Symphony. At that stage only symphonies 2 (review) and 7 (review) had been recorded. There are subtitles in English. The interviewer remains unseen throughout. Pettersson, eyes clouded, wearing dark glasses and evading eye-contact with the interviewer, seems acutely pained by the questions. There are long awkward silences but once in his stride he is forthcoming. He came from an impoverished working class musical family. A narrative of grinding hardship is illuminated with still pictures. Here was a composer who, like Benjamin Frankel, earned his way by playing in dance bands. He began with the violin but later switched to the viola. His tribulations as an orchestral player are also recounted. He says little about his music.

Pettersson's Fourth and Sixteenth Symphonies, each in a single movement, were written twenty years apart. The Fourth must have been ranked with the most problematic as it was amongst the last to be recorded. With the exception of the Seventh concert performances of the symphonies have not been exactly common even in Sweden. Those who learnt their Pettersson from exchange of tape recordings would have had the Fourth last. It teeters on edge of the 1960s and is rich in discontent and disturbance but there is much more to this work. Chattering Beethovenian cells, constantly in defiance, rear up a bit like a fate motif (7:20/14:10). Eldritch piping is relieved by mourning and moaning. Then at 12:07 there's a comforting hymn-like melody. Five minutes later there's a great access of eloquence which is predictive of the extended emotionally devastating tune at the end of the Seventh Symphony. Other episodes range from a Shostakovich-like trudging tragedy (19:43), to satiated fatigue (24:24) and violent trumpet-rich protest fading into muted tolling (28:08). After a momentary silence (29:16) there's a warm and almost Brahmsian paean which catches the mood of Eine Deutsches Requiem - a sort of chorale singing to the firmament. Here Pettersson reaches out in the unaffected manner of his Barefoot Songs. Then comes a crashing attack that is sudden and traumatic (32:34). It's as if the composer is exacting payment for seraphic peace with hellish yowling. At 34:10 there's a peaceful end. Dissonant shivers are present but calm predominates. Quite apart from the equivalent CPO disc collectors may have encountered a 1970 broadcast issued by Bis on vinyl (Gothenburg/Comissiona; LP301/3) and a private tape of what I take to be a broadcast by Swedish Radio. The conductor was Eliahu Inbal. Given the performing values and superior recording quality I would tend to favour the new Bis disc.

The same applies to Symphony 16 which is a very late work and dates from the same year as the Viola Concerto (Bis-CD-480) and the Ida Haendel-championed Violin Concerto No. 2 (Caprice CAP 21359). It's quite a short work at 26:57. It was requested by the US saxophonist Frederick L Hemke who premiered it and who can be heard in it on Swedish Society Discofil. The CPO version is by John-Edward Kelly who prepared his own edition of the concerto. I have not compared the versions but Kelly's runs to 24:23 where Jörgen Pettersson for Bis comes in at almost 27 minutes. Up to about 7:40 the work speaks as a whirlpool of discontent. From then onwards there's an accumulation of calming long-breathed endearments from the saxophone and especially the strings (10:50). Occasionally this drifts towards a universe parallel with Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. The atmosphere becomes increasingly embattled with the saxophone seeming to struggle heroically. The solo has the last quiet word with the strings - a still small voice.

Two more invaluable, aptly documented and well engineered Bis CDs. They remind us of Pettersson's monumental contribution to twentieth century symphonism. Challenging yet rewarding.

Rob Barnett

Previous review (No. 13): Dan Morgan

Earlier reviews of BIS Pettersson CDs
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 CD-1860 and here
Symphonies Nos. 8 and 10 CD-880 (not part of the Lindberg cycle; likewise CD-480: Symphony No. 5)
Symphonies Nos. 7 and 11 CD-580
Symphony No. 6, CD-1980 and here
Symphony No. 9, CD-2038

 

 




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