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Allan PETTERSSON (1911-1980)
Symphony No. 5 (1960–62) [40:46]
Symphony No. 7 (1966–67) [41:14]
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. 2017, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
BIS BIS-2240 SACD [82:48]

The music of Swedish twentieth-century symphonist Allan Pettersson can hardly be claimed to be generally familiar. This disc presents two of the seventeen symphonies, both written during the composer's fifties, in a volume that runs to approaching 83 minutes. These two works of the wired and woolly 1960s proclaim Pettersson as a traditionalist-individualist. Dissonance is abstemiously applied rather than sprayed. Its aim is to establish and articulate a mood which is often tragic-glum. He seems to assert that beauty must be quarried from intense melancholy. In that sense he parallels some of the music of fellow Swedes Torbjörn Lundquist and Gösta Nystroem.

Many of my generation will have traced their Pettersson journey back to an LP of his Seventh Symphony (SLT33194). At that stage I wondered if a 'journey' would be possible: would I ever get to hear the other symphonies or would they remain as inaccessible as the fabled and numerous symphonies of Finn, Edric Fordell? In 1979 the Seventh (with Doráti and the Stockholm Philharmonic) was my embarkation point courtesy of a stacked-high sale of Swedish Society Discofil LPs at the now-gone Harold Moores in their Great Marlborough Street premises. Gradually I came to hear the others via exchange of cassettes and acquiring LPs of Symphonies 2, 6, 8 and 9.

BIS have been a constant Pettersson supporter. Long before the present Lindberg and Norrköping project they recorded symphonies with Leif Segerstam and Moshe Atzmon (review). These included symphonies 5 (BIS-480 CD); 7 and 11 (BIS-580 CD) and 3 and 15 (BIS-680 CD). In the words of the Norrköping orchestra's website: "Now the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, BIS Records and Christian Lindberg … record …. Allan Pettersson’s symphonies …. This project will be completed in 2019 with a CD-box, which will contain all the symphonies of Allan Pettersson, as well as the second violin concerto. The box also includes the unfinished and until now unrecorded No. 17, which will be completed by Christian Lindberg as well. Additionally, the box will contain three documentary films about Allan Pettersson." Eight of the symphonies in this clock-reset series have already been recorded by Lindberg and BIS (review review review). When issued the BIS box will join the CPO set of symphonies 2-16 - minus a single conductor/orchestra vision, symphonies 1 and 17, the violin concerto and the documentaries.

As for the present disc it harnesses the Fifth and Seventh symphonies. Uncompromisingly, each is in a single movement although thoughtfully BIS have banded the Fifth in four tracks and the Seventh in thirteen. The Fifth presents as more episodic than the Seventh. It is a mortar in which the composer's pestle stirs and pounds a generous quantity of contrast and varied activity. At first blush it communicates in terse sentences rather than the long Jamesian paragraphs of the Seventh. Strangely, although the Seventh has been recorded more than any other Pettersson symphony the Fifth is probably the more easily accessible pathway given its churning activity. Notable outcrops include the ruthless whispered rush of Figure 17 (tr. 2) and the slate-grey epilogue-like melody with Sibelian ostinato (tr. 4) that prefigures much of the final 10 minutes of the Seventh Symphony. Both symphonies have more than their share of the mood of a landscape where "Ignorant armies clash by night". The Seventh, with its grindingly imperious heart-murmur ostinato and long-breathed heart-crushingly wistful melody, remains impressive in the longer-term. It establishes a mood and takes the listener on an emotional pilgrimage that brooks no distraction. Its fearfully concentrated grip and movingly fateful tread finds few echoes elsewhere. When the Seventh ends there is only silence. While the Lindberg Seventh feels as if he is allowing the music to move a shade too fast by comparison with the classic Doráti it is also the most eloquent version I have heard. Will it ever get its chance at the BBC Proms?

There is no other disc coupling these two works but in any event the playing and the lucid recording (played on a standard CD player) are wonderful in music that in any event is not about brash display. The notes by Per-Henning Olsson are a well-turned combination of biographical context, musical description and cultural setting. They are in English, Swedish, German and French. Quite apart from its own substantive excellence this disc now stands as the single best place to start an immersion in Pettersson.

Rob Barnett

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