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Allan PETTERSSON (1911-1980)
Symphony No.14 (1978) [52:38]
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. January 2016, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
Includes bonus DVD, Sången om livet (‘The Song of Life’) – a 2-hour documentary about Allan Pettersson produced for Swedish Television (SVT)
Picture format: NTSC - 4.3 pillar box
Sound format: Dolby Digital – Stereo
Region code: 0 (Worldwide)
Languages: Swedish, with English subtitles
BIS BIS-2230 SACD [52:28 + DVD: 118:00]

Allan Pettersson is regarded as one of the twentieth century’s leading Swedish composers, and his sixteen symphonies form the lion’s share of his compositional oeuvre. His life is tellingly portrayed in the accompanying DVD, about which more later. He was one of four Swedish composers awarded a state grant, which guaranteed him an income for life, giving some indication of the high regard in which he was held.

His Symphony No. 14 was written just after his Second Violin Concerto in 1978. It’s a single movement span, as are several of his symphonies, of 52 minutes duration. It was premiered in 1981 by Sergiu Comissiona and the Stockholm Philharmonic, who made a recording of it the same year for the Phono Suecia label (review). Though Pettersson studied the twelve-tone system, he never fully embraced it, but one can find traces of it throughout this opus. It’s a compositionally advanced work, where rich counterpoint is a notable feature. It draws on huge orchestral forces, and calls for an exceptionally large percussion section.

At its centre is a simple melody - ‘Klokar och knythänder’ (Wise men and Clenched Hands), purloined from his own ‘Barefoot Songs’ (1943-45). It’s not the first time he had turned to this cycle for material in his symphonic works. Here he quotes the song five times, and this provides an underlying structure. Each time it appears it’s vested in variegated orchestral garb.

Pettersson paints a canvas of conflicting emotions and sharply defined sensations. Lighter, lyrical interludes lie side by side with bombastic thrusts. At times discordant and declamatory, the cries of agony engulf the listener with startling effect. Like many of the other symphonies it’s not an easy listen, but persistence reaps rewards.

With this release, Christian Lindberg is seven volumes into a complete Pettersson symphony cycle. It’s in direct competition with CPO’s excellent traversal, issued some years ago and whose volumes I collected individually as they were released. The Berlin Radio Symphony/Johan Arnell version (CPO-1988) is five minutes faster than this newcomer. It is disadvantaged by being confined to one track, whereas BIS have divided theirs into nine, facilitating reference points, which is preferable in my view. I also slightly favour the greater immediacy and presence of the BIS recording.

I’d never seen Pettersson on film before, so was delighted that a two-hour documentary- Sången om livet (‘The Song of Life’), produced by Swedish Television after his death, has been included. It starts with some footage of him struggling to get down a flight of stairs, backwards, but fully determined to do it without assistance. In 1953 he’d been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and it’s obvious that he suffered intensely with this progressive disease. Later in the film we catch a glimpse of his deformed hands and elbows. There’s a touching moment where his brother relates how it was a herculean effort for Pettersson to get out of bed in the morning, but once he sat down at his desk to compose his suffering dissipated.

Throughout the course of the film we return to a filmed interview with the composer, which takes place in his home in the presence of his wife, and it provides some structure and cohesion. We encounter his two brothers and several musical colleagues. There’s a fascinating section where the violinist Ida Haendel meets up with him to discuss the Violin Concerto, written especially for her, and we are treated to some short excerpts of her performing it in concert.

Also Helpful is the biographical thread running through the film, charting his early years in Paris. Here he got to know Henryk Szeryng and Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Then there’s his time as an orchestral player, when he worked under such conductors as Furtwängler, Mengelberg and Klemperer. All of this period is illustrated with black and white film. He discusses his compositional studies, which began in 1951, and reminisces about his teachers, who included such stellar figures as Karl-Birger Blomdahl, René Leibowitz, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. The latter part of the film concentrates on Pettersson the symphonist. There are some excerpts of filmed performances of his music being performed near the end.

All told, this is a deeply rewarding release.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Dan Morgan



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