A music column by Don Mager
Allan Pettersson. Symphony No.10 and Symphony No.11. Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR, conducted by Alun Francis. CPO 999 285-2.
This 1997 release of Pettersson's Symphony No.10 completes the issue of a complete cycle of the Pettersson symphonies--all 15 of them--by the cpo label. Another complete cycle is being released by the BIS label. That No.10 would be the final release is noteworthy because it is one of the most concentrated and angry of all the Pettersson symphonies. Anyone who knows this composer knows that "most angry" would seem to be a redundant claim, for this is the composer whose penchant for musical raging is perhaps unequaled.
I do not like to play the rating game, but it is hard to imagine another symphonist since Shostakovich whose production is of quite the sustained and epic scope of Pettersson and regardless how unamenable individual listeners find the Petterssonean emotional palate, the sheer monumentality of his sound structures and his dazzling string writing, I believe, will lock him in place as one of the great musical voices of symphonic literature.
Scandinavian culture has produced a number of figures (Kierkegaard, Strindberg, Munch, Sibelius, Bergman, some of Ibsen and even some Nielsen) who at the least might be said to be dark and brooding. Pettersson shares this cultural environment, although liner notes argue for individuality not cultural tradition as the sole explanation. Pettersson's unrestrained and unrelieved musical rage is said to be in response to his childhood poverty, the class discriminations in Sweden that held him from opportunities often taken for granted by members of the middle class, and to his excruciating and chronic health problems which left him an invalid for most of the last eight years of his life. His own statements, however, and his Sym phony No.16 with its Neruda text, offer a different view, namely that his music cries out in a righteous political rage at the social injustices and inequities that capitalism has enforced on underclasses globally. He sees himself broadly as a Marxist artist in protest against capitalist corruption and exploitation. One thinks of Hans Werner Henze as a like-minded contemporary.
Either way, the music itself is excruciating in its effects. For someone not familiar with Pettersson, Symphony No.10 (written in 1972) is a good place to begin, even though No.7-- clocking in at over an hour, with its lush string textures, vast structuring arch and exquisitely elongated cadence which climbs down from the mid-point climax across a thirty minute sustained pedal-point modulation--has probably become his most popular and widely performed work. No.10 is the most closely associated with the onset of his debilitating kidney ailment. Much of it was written during a nine-month hospital stay, when on occasion he resorted to composing on paper napkins. At twenty-seven minutes is it one of his shortest works, but its condensed form in no way ameliorates its unrelieved display of anger and despair.
The symphony opens with a jagged onrush of musical cells as if ideas fall over and trip up one another. This headlong rush follows a pattern of climbing and falling back, of flexing and unflexing, even while the small three or four note cells are tossed and buffeted around by various instruments to form an eruptive array of textures, sometimes thin and chamber like, other times thick and abrasive. This frenzy gives way to a large laborious ascending climax with a seeming promise of heroic gestures of victory, but just as the victory seems on the verge of blazing forth, piercing whistle-like woodwinds punctuated by yelping brass turn the music into a raging migraine--all of which is accompanied by a persistent battery of percussion. In exhaustion more than in reaction, the orchestral chiaroscuro melts into a brief dirge carried by lush strings, only to erupt into an even fiercer battaglia. Piercing violins wail in an unrelieved cry of anger and sadness above an orchestra of volcanic kinesis. Finally, almost in a sad loveliness almost pretending consolation, a rich polyphonic fabric is woven around a triplet motif, while the obsessive percussion becomes silent, and with a choir-like effect, the work beings a final ascent. Again it seems to hold hope of heroic victory only to fizzle into a wild snare drum tattoo ushering in an onrush to furious tensions, explosions and an abrupt final clang, then silence.
The second work on this disk, No.11, is generally viewed as a companion work to No.10. Both were composed about the same time and are of comparable lengths. Although perhaps it is a bit less strident, as the liner notes claim, and even a bit gentler than No.10, its whimpering final bars make it equally as bleak and unconsoling. This is not the first recording of No.11.
Alun Francis has led various German orchestras in a number of the cpo Pettersson series. One His procedure for recording these symphonies, many for the first time, brings a great conviction and inner dynamic to his recordings. After preparing the work through sufficient rehearsals, the orchestra integrates it into its repertoire and tours with it across Europe over several seasons, offering it to many audiences. Thus, the work achieves a closeness to the musicians, modified by time in terms of audience and critical reception. Finally it is recorded. This explains why cpo has taken nearly fifteen years to complete its Pettersson series. These are not studio performances, enlivened by mic editing, splicing and the like. They are the conductor's and the orchestra's considered reading of the work over time. Francis has mastered the large problems of pacing and form so that his performances cohere and convince. I have heard Pettersson performances which are disjointed and episodic. Francis's are not. He draws from his orchestra dazzling effects, which unlike some Pettersson recording do not over-indulge the strings.
Both No.10 and No.11 are worth a classical CD buyer's living with for a while, for beneath all their sound and fury, their wails and their whimpers, their sobs and dirges, is an indomitable strength, beside which most other symphonies of the last three decades simply seem anemic.