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CD Review

Allan Pettersson

BIS 2230

Symphony #14

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
BIS SACD 2230 + DVD w/ documentary
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The cycle of symphonies by Swedish composer, Allan Pettersson (1911-1980) from Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra has been widely praised. Of the 16 symphonies by the composer BIS has already released numbers 1, 2, 4, 6, 9, 13 and 16 with Lindberg as conductor, and numbers 3, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 15 with Leif Segerstam. A complete set with various orchestras and conductors on CPO (777247) has numbers 5 (also available in a previous Bis (480) coupling using the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Moshe Atzmón coupled with the Viola Concerto by Nobuko Imai and under Lev Markiz) and 12.

Such references have to be made because the orchestral palette and direction of Pettersson's orchestral and symphonic writing have a certain consistency and, one can't help but feel, have a central symphonic purpose. This is not to say that Pettersson's writing doesn't mature over the nearly 30 years (the unfinished number 1 dates from 1951; number 16 from 1979) for which they occupied him. It most certainly does mature. At times you think it's pushing forward and outwards, aching to explore new ground. In others (like this 14th) you feel that Pettersson needs to recover lost ground, reaffirm what he has already communicated. Amplify – which includes gently embroidering on – previous yearnings.

It's not repetitive music, though it's clearly concerned with the expression of both ache and yearning – perhaps a little in the way that the music of Pēteris Vasks is, or that of Peter Sculthorpe. One significant difference between Pettersson and Vasks or Sculthorpe in this respect is that the former seems to have a residual hope that somehow woe and grief, even (personal) depression can be alleviated. Whereas Vasks and Sculthorpe are all but resigned, Pettersson seems to believe that, if enough energy and effort is put into examining sadness and gloom, something can be saved. And that this is his purpose. Even though life never makes any such salvation easy or immediate.

The great strength of Lindberg (and indeed of Segerstam) in their recordings is to emphasize muscularity and striving over deprivation – perhaps in the way that Beethoven did rather than Schubert. For every set of tonalities that betoken loss and despair, this recording is begging us to believe, there is – often by sheer will power – a path, if not to the full light of day, then to an admittedly gray dawn. Pettersson's is large-scale, insistent, tall, towering almost, orchestration, a soundscape with eschews declamation yet is entirely unambivalent and demonstrative. So one of the hardest tasks of an orchestra and conductor is to sustain phrasing, momentum, direction and hence listeners' interest.

But this is exactly what the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under both Segerstam and Lindberg have done from first to last in the cycle. And what the latter does here – consistently, and unflinchingly. Fully comfortable with the global architecture of Pettersson's writing, yet without minimizing the strenuousness and concentration needed, the orchestra stays even and determined throughout the eight continuous movements of the 52-minute work.

Above all Lindberg and his forces manage to leave us satisfied at the end of the work without suggesting that anything has been resolved when it hasn't. They do this, however, without any sense of cruelty, manipulation or the introduction of rhetoric – spurious or otherwise. Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra convey particularly well that Pettersson surely wished us not to take any lack of such resolution as implying any incompleteness or deficiency. But we should be just as sure that this uncertain state in turn must not suggest any kind of artistic ambiguity. Despite the largely conventional idiom of the Symphony, if we think about emotional "closure", we are missing the point. Life is not like that.

Indeed, the temptation of performers less adequate to the task than these would be to attempt answers. At the other extreme, to have substituted a sense of questioning in intonation, phrasing and dynamic would have robbed the work of its subtlety. Anything less than this ambiguity would have deprived the listener of the very satisfaction that, for all its searing depths (and heights), makes Pettersson's work so appealing. These performers truly understand the work. There is a consequent smoothness. Again, their playing lacks a sense of inevitability (in the way there is in Bruckner's symphonies for example). And lacks the sheer pathos of Mahler. Even the small, staccato, motifs on the strings – which can be decidedly seen as interjections – are played additively, rather than as in opposition to the main sense of the Symphony. As a result, time passes swiftly once you immerse yourself in Pettersson's intense world.

Like most of Pettersson's symphonies, the Fourteenth (which was written in 1978 and premiered in 1981) is a single extended movement written for a huge orchestra which has an enlarged percussion section. The nine-note motif which is introduced towards the beginning in the first violins is somewhat redolent of serial technique in that it contains all the notes of the chromatic scale. The work is, nevertheless, fully tonal. That melody actually derives from a song in Pettersson's own Barfotasånger, which is on a typically wistful theme… "flowers can also wilt in the hands of the wise".

With the 14th symphony in this release comes a two-hour documentary on DVD, "The Song of Life". It's a compelling series of illustrated conversations with Pettersson recorded between 1973 and 1980 produced in 1987 for Swedish Television – and is in Swedish. Pettersson became severely infirm (with arthritis), which crucially changed his life. His spontaneity and determination ("The Song of Life" is apt), not to mention his cantankerousness strike the viewer and go some long way to explaining that balance alluded to above between what a casual listener would take for gloom, grief and even the negative on the one hand; and a realistic and measured affirmation on the other. You can safely reach this conclusion for no other reason than that it emphasizes Pettersson's wider European context… he was not a brooding Nordic introvert – despite the way in which he and his work are sometimes characterized. So this DVD (made possible as a result of Lindberg's sponsorship) is well worth the price of the release alone.

The acoustic (of the Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping in Sweden) is spacious and bold – without being over-resonant or intimidating in the light of the dominating and demanding style of Pettersson's writing. It suits the Symphony excellently. The booklet containing notes in English, Swedish, German and French does a good job of setting the scene for those unfamiliar with Pettersson's life and world and at the same time detailing specifics of this Symphony. Pettersson enthusiasts will not hesitate to buy this excellent BIS set. For those new to the composer and curious about his allure, for all it's a late work, it's a very good place to start. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 2017, Mark Sealey