My initiation into Pettersson's world was not an encouraging one. In 1979,
scanning the stacks of Scandinavian LPs in Harold Moores, I bought the Swedish
Society Discofil LP of the second symphony. I am afraid that to this day
I cannot gain much from this work. I must be at fault because, of all the
symphonies, it was No 2 which Paul Rapoport chose in his valuable 'signposts'
book Opus Est (Kahn & Averill, 1981?). Later I was completely won over
by the seventh symphony which I commend strongly to everyone for what I can
only describe as its sustained despairing beauty.
CPO have methodically been recording the complete cycle using a variety of
conductors and orchestras. No 10 is a whirlwind of despair and violence spanning
27 minutes. It could not have been written without Tchaikovsky's Francesca
da Rimini, Scriabin's wilder extremes, nor without Shostakovich's bleaker
symphonies but really the sound is very much Pettersson's own. It is not
atonal and great themes do rear up constantly through the hammering, screaming
agonised brass and certainly the crippled humanity and broken splendour of
the music is accessible. An almost Bach-like theme winds in and out of the
last half of the symphony.
The eleventh symphony runs for 25 minutes. It opens in gentle spirit but
soon feels the call of Gehenna. It is turbulent music but without the sustained
drive of its predecessor. Once again great striding themes claw heavenwards
through oceans of strident clamorous sound. One of these themes closes the
symphony which ends as if cut off in mid-step: not for Pettersson any
conventional finishing flourish.
How can one judge performance of this music? How much of a performance history
is there? In any event all seems as it should be. Alun Francis's dedication
to the cause is clear. He has recorded for CPO Pettersson 2 3 4 5 9 13 and
16! I wish the BBC had made more use of him and indeed other conductors like
Stanley Pope. As it is he has recorded Casella, Dohnanyi, Searle, Toch and
Wolf-Ferrari for CPO along with much else. His radio tape of Hovhaness Concerto
No 7 is well worth finding. These CPO recordings (1993 and 1994 respectively)
are rich and fully three-dimensional. I stress this because some may worry
about the presumed radio provenance of the tapes. CPO have been humane in
both the symphonies providing scrupulously subdivided tracks linked to particular
bars in the score: five for each of the symphonies.
Excellent notes by Andreas Meyer plus a chronology and the composer's marginalia
from the 10th symphony.
Fine recordings. Short value I suppose but these are accessible short single
movement introductions to the man. If neither has the blasted splendour of
the seventh symphony they are nevertheless deeply impressing pieces.