Pettersson - Symphonies 1 and 2

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ALLAN PETTERSSON - Symphonies 1 and 2 - Christian Lindberg (Conductor) - Norrköping Symphony Orchestra - CD + DVD - 7318590018606 - Released: September 2011 - BIS CD1860

Born on 19th September 1911, Allan Pettersson was a singular voice in Swedish, and indeed European, 20th-century music. Raised in a poor neighbourhood in Stockholm, his first instrument was a fiddle made by one of his brothers from a tin box and some strings, and Pettersson immediately realized that music was his calling. In 1939 he won a place as viola player in what is today the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, but at this time he also began to compose – at first his Barfotasanger (Barefoot Songs) and chamber works. It was towards the very end of the 1940s, while he was working up the courage to leave his steady position, that he began to compose his Symphony No.1. In a letter he recounted how the symphony was growing and growing, and even threatened to swallow him up whole. Perhaps as a result of a study visit to Paris, where he had lessons with René Leibowitz and Arthur Honegger, Pettersson laid the work aside, but during the following years – and possibly as late as in the 1970s – he kept returning to the sketches. He certainly never abandoned the symphony, and in 1953 when he completed a second symphony, he insisted on calling that work his 'No.2'. {BIS Records}

September 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important 20th century Swedish composers, Gustaf Allan Pettersson. It is therefore befitting the occasion for BIS Records to release, as a world première recording, the composer's unfinished Symphony No. 1, here presented in its performance edition by Christian Lindberg from the original score. As you will see from the excellent film on the DVD that is included with this CD, it was not an easy task to prepare the score for performance. Hand-written, with many sketches, omissions, missing bars, various annotations and scribbles, revisions, etc ... Not to mention that Pettersson's music is complex to begin with. Nothing was added, nothing removed. It is only one single movement, lasting over 30 minutes, but then all of Pettersson's many symphonies are massive one-movement affairs. And in typical Pettersson fashion, it is built around many short, contrasting motifs that seem to joust for position in a relentless forward momentum, sometimes broken by oddly quiet, child-like tunes or hymn inspired moments of tranquility. And even though the ending seems to peter out, it doesn't feel incomplete. The composer did in fact return to it many times over the following twenty years, mostly to revise the orchestration, but never actually closed the book on its creation. The ensuing Second Symphony could be partially to blame for the First's premature abandonment. Pettersson himself wrote of his first symphony: "I am in the process of augmenting my catalogue of transgressions with a symphony, which is approaching completion. It is getting bigger and bigger, while I am getting smaller and smaller - and, when it is finally ready, all that will probably remain of Pettersson will be the spectacles."

In 1952 came a commission from Swedish Radio in Stockholm for a large-scale work, with a guarantee that it would be performed when completed. An opportunity Pettersson could simply not turn down. And thus was born the impulse, the impetus, for his Symphony No. 2, which may be partly responsible for the First being relegated to the back-burner. As in the First, the opening pages are mysteriously ominous, foreshadowing its long, tortuous and complex development. Despite the fact that René Leibowitz, one of his former teachers, had let him down the path of serial and dodecaphonic music, this is music strongly anchored in harmonic stability with moments of forward-looking expressive freedom. Pettersson himself said of his tutelage years: "I have to write as I myself want to." Like most of his musical output, it is driven forward by strong motifs, or statements, that reinforce themselves and the whole structure, every time they reappear. A simple 3 note gesture can and does become a force to be reckoned with under Pettersson's hands. His most famous symphony, the 7th, is built on such a motif. All his material is intricately worked out over a single movement that spans over 1,057 bars, and stretches over 46 minutes duration. Moments of deep melancholy clash with moments of frenetic activity. Moments of almost religious fervor clash with moments of bleak reality. In the end the main idea tries in vain to impose its will, but the work ends as mysteriously as it opened.

Conductor Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra deliver an impactful performance that should help reinforce the fact that Allan Pettersson's music should be performed and recorded more often and therefore be made available to a broader audience. It should never be allowed to fall into neglect. His music may not conform to everyone's aesthetic values, but then that's exactly what makes it so rewarding an experience. The one hour documentary/film on the bonus DVD about the First Symphony and Pettersson's life, with inspired images of for example, the composer's spectacles sitting on top of the open score, or Stockholm covered in snow, goes a long way in exposing this composer's will and determination to express himself against all odds.

Allan Pettersson was born in Sweden in 1911, the year Mahler died, and passed away in 1980 after suffering most of his adult life from polyarthritis, an ailment which caused him constant severe pain and prevented him from being able to write down his own music starting around the time of his 6th symphony. But that didn't prevent him from composing 16 symphonies, 3 concertos, chamber works and song cycles. His determination and spirit were such that, despite suffering and living in poverty most of his life, and feeling rejected by musical society in general because he didn't fit in with the "romantics" or the "modernists" because he was a strange combination of both camps, he never stopped working feverishly, tucked away from the rest of the world. And like Gustav Mahler, he had an abusive alcoholic father, and was raised in a poor environment in which becoming a musician, let alone a composer, was frowned upon. And like Mahler, he didn't write his massive works out of obligation, or because he had studied for it, or for financial security, but because he was compelled, driven, some may even say "chosen", to transpose his human existence into music, laid out on paper note by note. But unlike Mahler, his music's sense of desolation, of decay, never relents. It's like that dead time of night after midnight, with rain and fog rolling in ...

Jean-Yves Duperron - October 2011