Monday, December 26, 2011

Bereit...?

Dear Friends,

I hope you can accept the fact that I needed to practice as an excuse for my recent lack of updates. As some of you know, for the next 10 days or so I will be an orchestral cellist in the Deutsch-Skandinavisch Jugend Philharmonie, where we will be playing excerpts from the Barefoot Songs and the first movement of the Symphony No. 8. Oh, and there will be some Strauss and Bernstein too. Most likely I will be the oldest member of the orchestra and maybe the only one who is not pursuing music full-time, either as a student or a professional. At the conclusion of our intense rehearsal schedule, we will be performing in the Berliner Philharmonie, one of the revered temples of western classical music. To say that I am excited and nervous is an understatement. 

Our concert will be taking place on 5. January at 20:00. Please try to come to the concert, and if you do, be sure to say hi! I would love to meet you. 

Throughout the coming days I will try to post updates and pictures from Berlin. Stay tuned!

I promise, I really do promise, to get back to the regular updates once I get back.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Petterssons gravsten

Urnlund.
Going in...
This past weekend I found myself in Stockholm again and thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to visit Pettersson's grave. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and arriving at the Högalidskyrkan I was expecting to find a graveyard adjacent to the church. However, it soon became clear that there was no such thing, but rather a place for the deceased's ashes.

Once inside, there were gravestones floor to ceiling. It was not quite the proverbial needle in the haystack, but it was close. 

After combing through the gravestones on two floors (with assistance) I decided to call it quits for the time being. On the way out, my partner pointed out a set of gravestones on the upper most row, which were shaped differently than the others. Suddenly, I remembered from Nils Larsson's facebook photo of Pettersson's grave (which I should have brought with me in the first place). If you look carefully at the photo you can see the location of the gravestone, should you wish to visit it yourself.

I am taking my time with getting around to the Symphony No. 12, but I will post something eventually. After the audition, I now need to practice the music for the actual concert...
A lot of gravestones...
Found it!





Friday, November 4, 2011

Hälsningar från Norrköping!

I remember in 2000 I saw on Paul Cathen's Pettersson page that the Symphony No. 6 would be performed in Stockholm. I could only look at the announcement and wish I could be there. I had no way of getting to Stockholm; I certainly did not have the money. This morning I woke up earlier than I would normally like to, packed my backpack, and made my way to the airport. As I stepped out the door I thought to myself that what happens tonight will only last an hour, but in this hour I will be seeing live a piece I have waited to see live for over twelve years. This piece is really special to me—while in the pits of early 20-something depression I would listen to this piece repeatedly, and every time I reached the final oasis of this work, I felt renewed and purified. This music spoke to me. Nowadays, while I am hopefully more mentally sound, I still keep coming back to this incredible work.

The German program which is taking place this weekend is arguably bigger than this one. In addition to all the great music and lectures, there will be my friends from the German Pettersson community and a whole bunch of other Pettersson scholars I would like to meet. I would get to speak German, which is something I enjoy doing whenever I get the chance. However, from a practical standpoint, coming to Norrköping from Helsinki is far easier (there is a direct flight) than going to Freiberg, which from my experience requires flying to Berlin, then taking the train to Freiberg via Dresden, which further adds a good 3-4 hours of travel time.

Anyhow, despite how scary I find old propeller-driven planes, I landed in Norrköping without incident. The bus stop in the city was right next to the main library, so I stopped in to see what kind of Pettersson-related material they had. Although I have access to Vox Humana via the Naxos Music Library, I do not have access to the texts. Fortunately the Norrkoping library had the CD, so I made some copies of the texts. They also had a copy of Laila Barkefors’ book, Det brinner en sol inom oss: En tonsättares liv och verk, but unfortunately not at the main branch.

If you look at who left a comment on my last entry you can see that Christian Lindberg himself was very pleased that I decided to go to Norrköping. Well, tonight before beginning the piece he made it a point to mention (in English, no less) that he was reading on the blogs that someone traveled to this very performance and passed up a chance to go to Freiberg. Made my day!

Anyhow, to the performance. The opening was played very deliberately (and very well), particularly the lower strings. The overall effect felt like quiet, albeit tragic, determination, as opposed to sounding just gloomy or sad. Once the symphony proper got started, it became clear that the enormous difficulties Pettersson presents to the orchestra was sometimes too much. The strings overall did fine, but they sounded restrained, as opposed to the near suicidal abandon from Kamu’s strings a generation ago. The horns were unfortunately too timid and lacking in confidence, but the trumpets and especially the low brass were quite good. I personally could have used a lot more tam-tam in the first half. The section where piccolo and xylophone are doubling on that devilish lick was shaky for a while.

Criticisms aside, I got the impression that Lindberg was more interested in bringing out musicality, orchestral details and maintaining a consistent line as opposed to bringing out the desperate conflicts which this piece has in spades, especially in the first half. This was particularly apparent to me in the protracted climb to the lyrical island—rather than sounding like an increasingly exhausting trek to reach the oasis, which Kamu and even Trojahn bring out, tonight’s performance made the lyrical island (which was absolutely beautifully played) seem more like an inevitability as opposed to a hard-fought struggle. This is certainly a valid approach, albeit one that I was not necessarily expecting. Perhaps this is not want Lindberg intended; we’ll see how the studio recording turns out (which will be nice, cause tonight there were a lot of coughing people).

I managed to speak to Lindberg for a few minutes after the performance. I asked him about the future of the Symphony No. 1, and he said that further performances elsewhere are being discussed. I also asked about the future of the Pettersson cycle, and if I understood correctly the goal is to first finish everything that Segerstam did not get around to and then re-record what BIS has already released. This however, is dependent on the financial situation at BIS, which I heard is less than great.

Anyways, a huge thanks to Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping SO! Tonight’s performance is one I will not forget any time soon. Word on the street is that the Symphony No. 9 is next…

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Till Norrköping! (leider nicht nach Freiberg)

Believe it or not, there are two huge Pettersson events taking place over the next few days (3-6 November). One of them is the performance of the Symphony No. 6 in Norrköping and Linnköping under the direction of Christian Lindberg, and the other is a absolute Pettersson-lover's dream of performances and lectures in Freiberg (not Freiburg), Germany.

Although one should be eternally grateful that there are Pettersson events at all this year, let alone multiple events at the same time, I cannot help but feel like it has been a terrible misalignment of the stars that these two programs overlap and I have to pick one over the other (I suppose I'm spoiled enough to be able to go to either!). Considering the relative ease for me to go to Norrköping and how the Symphony No. 6 really has a special place in my heart, I have decided to go to Sweden. However, I really wish I could go to Germany for that excellent program. 

Nevertheless, I am eagerly awaiting tomorrow night's performance and I will write back here with my thoughts as soon as I can!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Recordings: Symphonic Movement

To my knowledge there are two commercially available recordings of this work. There is the CPO recording, the one I will be discussing here, and another found on a BIS box set celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, containing a whole bunch of other works as well. I do not have access to the BIS recording but have listened to it maybe two times many years ago, when I could access it from the University of Wisconsin library.

I do not remember what year the BIS recording was made or who was conducting it, but I do remember it not being competitive compared to Francis on CPO. According to the BIS website, the performance time for this recording is 13:32, which is around 3 minutes longer than what Pettersson asks for. When Pettersson makes a clear indication for what he wants in terms of performance time, I wonder why someone just goes ahead and comes up with dramatically slower tempos.

Anyway, without really having much to compare to I can still feel confident that Francis and the BBC Scottish SO really do a fine job with this score. Maybe I could make a few minor quibbles about how the trumpets sound a little pinched when pushing in their upper registers, or how the horns could be a bit more powerful, but this is easily the version to have.

I wonder if Christian Lindberg will record this as part of his cycle, as Segerstam never got around to it…

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Symphonic Movement (1973)

The Symphonic Movement has a special place in my heart. Although I considered myself a serious Pettersson fan shortly after hearing his music for the first time (this is the late 90’s), I found most of the works from his early and middle periods to be a little over my head and inaccessible for my (then) tastes. The Symphonic Movement was an exception; it was one of the works from his late period (the other was the Symphony No. 15) which I listened to most often.

Returning to this work for this survey brings back memories of me sitting alone in my small, grungy, cockroach-infested apartment on the outskirts of the University of Wisconsin campus, depressed, eating delivery pizza 3-4 times a week, and browsing the internet on a dial-up connection while listening to this piece. Those were the days…

The Symphonic Movement was commissioned by Swedish Radio channel TV1 for a film essay by Boris Engström, who was also the dedicatee (anyone know the dates of the premiere, TV or in concert?). At around 11 minutes, it is a compact, tightly argued introduction to Pettersson’s late style, and I would even recommend it as an introduction to Pettersson’s music in general, if you don’t feel like sitting through the 45 minutes of the Symphony No. 7.

The piece opens with a tone series played by violas and woodwinds, in a low-mid register. One does not, however, get the sense that this will be a strictly atonal or serial work. The snare drum makes a violent appearance, along with a leaping motive (E-F-Db) in high woodwinds. Both of these gestures will come back repeatedly. A long melody appears in the strings (beautifully exchanged between violins and violas), taking the leaping motive as a start. Upper woodwinds add commentary before the strings continue the melody. This interplay continues until the music reaches an arrival at bb minor.

The snare drum announces the next section, lead by churning, propulsive strings and angular high woodwinds. With the entrance of tam-tam and tenor drum the music assumes a sense of desperation. Two motives now dominate the conflicted, stormy landscape: a strained, stuttering upward motive, moving up two half steps, followed by an equally strained snarl, a fall of a half step, here harmonized in perfect fifths. Trumpets lead one final push before this section breaks. Pounding timpani accompany horns and trumpets playing fragments of the long melody (including the leaping motive). This section runs out of steam and leads directly to a calmer, dreamlike, a minor-ish section, dominated by strings and woodwinds.

The snare drum returns, along with churning and propulsive strings. The stuttering motive is heard on trumpets, this time in downward motion. Over a quietly nervous and conflicted string accompaniment (a dense forest of the stuttering and snarl motives) horn and cellos sing a long melody, heard in the previous, dreamlike section. The return of snare drum and churning strings push the music to a breaking point again: horns annunciate the leaping motive, trumpets give one more push, and repeated notes from upper woodwinds lead to a strained, but conclusive V of bb minor.

Arriving on bb minor strings and woodwinds take up and exchange the long melody. Repeated Fs from the timpani give a stronger sense of forward motion. Snare drum and churning strings return yet again, but this time it doesn’t have a chance to go far; a minor reasserts itself, fragments of the dreamlike section are heard. A bassoon adds a little bit of color/conflict on an F natural, right before the piece concludes quietly on a minor.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 11

Symphony No. 11
NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover
Alun Francis, conductor
CPO 999 285-2
 
Symphony No.11
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam, conductor
BIS-CD-580
 
Francis’ Pettersson recordings for CPO have always been more than good, if not just a little less than great. However, coincidence or not, I seem to prefer his competition when he has it: Segerstam on Symphonies 3 and 10, Westerberg on Symphony No. 2, and Atzmon on Symphony No. 5. I am pleased to say that on this work, Francis has on display many strengths which allow me to confidently say (well, at least in my opinion) that his account is the one you want.

Like the previous entries in his cycle, Segerstam brings to the table great orchestral playing, a lot of surface excitement, and extra-sharp attacks from brass and percussion. However, as great as this is, I found that with this approach the symphony continued to elude me, while Francis’ approach made the music much more communicative from the outset, clarifying the somewhat elusive message of this work.

Similar to the Symphony No. 10, Segerstam is a bit faster than Francis, about 24:40 to 25:30, respectively (in the score Pettersson calls for a duration of 24 minutes, so both are pretty close). Despite the slightly shorter duration I find my attention flagging with Segerstam, while Francis does a much better job of keeping me engaged.

Ok, so what is so great about Francis’ take here? Although Francis and the NDR Hannover sound rougher and less secure in this music compared to their Swedish peers, and the brass attacks can sound quite shy (compared to Segerstam’s terrifying snarls) pretty much everything else goes right. For starters, there is a better sense of balance, particularly in the strings and woodwinds compared to the brass. This is clear from the outset. For example, listen to how Francis brings out the flute and piccolo counter melodies against the viola section solo at the beginning. This makes the “false” notes come out more clearly and dare I say sound “natural.” At the conclusion of the opening section Francis brings out the rumblings from the lower strings and bassoons (3 after rehearsal 5), really drawing us in to this new world.

Bringing out all the interesting string writing and clearly defining Pettersson’s rhythmic ideas is something which Francis emphasizes throughout his reading. Overall, I get the strong impression that Francis is letting the music itself generate the tension, and letting the music itself “make sense,” for lack of a better term. At the conclusion of this work, by no means a real resolution, Francis adds just the right amount of weight to the final trumpet push, giving us the feeling that this is the end—no questions at all—to this particular journey. It is about as satisfactory an ending as one can achieve with this work.

With Pettersson, you really cannot go wrong when either Segerstam or Francis are on the podium (and there are usually few other options!), but for this elusive work, go for Francis the first time around.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Symphony No. 11 (1973)

Sorry about the very long delay. Back to work!

Despite the challenges these symphonies present to the listener, careful and engaged listening will usually reveal Pettersson’s overall symphonic argument (such as use and development of motives, rhythms, intervals, gestures, etc.). Of course, repeated listening may be required to grasp some of the finer details of each work.

The sketches of the Symphony No. 11 date from Pettersson’s nine-month hospital stay in 1970-1, and this work is sometimes considered an accompanying work to his Symphony No. 10. Although this symphony may be Pettersson’s most violent and brutal in comparison to all that has come before, I actually find it quite “accessible.”  The Symphony No. 11, on the other hand, I feel is Pettersson’s most elusive work thus far in this survey. Only after several listenings with score have I begun to come to my own understanding of the emotional message of this work.

After the battle depicted in the Symphony No. 10 has concluded, Pettersson takes us to a strange, perhaps unsettling calm. Soon we are taken into a nightmarish world which seems to me as if we are observers, but not actively participating. Fragments of the preceding symphony appear, like a glimpse back to the world we came from. The music wants to arrive at a breaking point; a great climax, but it never seems to come. Seemingly out of nowhere, an 8-part canonic passage for strings suggests an emergence from this world, and the return of the opening material seems like exiting through the same gates we entered, into a blinding light which quickly fades. Without getting a chance to catch our breath, the symphony closes.

The Symphony No. 11 was commissioned by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra “Harmonien” and premiered on 24. October 1974.  

The symphony opens with a brief passage of simple but somewhat uneasy beauty. A descending scale in the oboes is harmonized in contrary motion by violas and clarinets. Horns, violas and cellos play an ascending scale filling the space of a tenth. Flute and piccolo continue the line. The violas sing a long melody of quiet yearning, accompanied by flute and piccolo, occasionally sticking in “off” notes. Oboes play the opening descending scale again, and the music quickly changes character soon after.

Pettersson now takes the music to a clearly more agitated landscape. Syncopated scale fragments, both ascending and descending are heard while violas and lower strings provide a jagged, forward moving counterpoint. Biting muted brass interjections and short sighing gestures add to the busy musical fabric. We arrive at a brief climax; a fragment of the viola line heard earlier. The music calms back down, with a syncopated gesture played by trumpets, but builds up again quickly.

Pettersson now creates a sense of anticipation: over a steady timpani beat strings enter in canonically, section by section, along with the appearance of snare drum. Parallel diminished chords are heard in upper woodwinds and celesta, followed by low brass. Reminiscent of the Symphony No. 7, the parallel diminished chords are played in upward motion with reduced note values, leading to forceful horn call, an annunciation of sorts.

The next passage seems like Pettersson is looking back at the battle which has passed: the Symphony No. 10. Sixteenth note licks and a distinctive rhythm (eighth-eighth-dotted quarter-eighth) are fragments of key motives from the previous symphony. Stabbing attacks by muted brass push the music forward, with increasing violence (listen to the horns push the music over the top).

Strings continue the music’s forward movement, but in a quieter, somewhat more meditative way. However, stabbing muted brass try to disrupt this reverie. The brass soon forcefully take over the orchestral landscape. The entrance of xylophone signal the entrance into a new section.

The following section to me feels like driving through a frightening, nightmarish landscape, but remaining a passive observer. A long melody played by the violins lead us in. An intensification of the music is brought on by the entrance of brass and extremely angular and bone-rattling xylophone. Before we begin our drive away, listen to a rising motive played by basses and bassoons, which will gain prominence later on.

Over the next extended section this frightening landscape fades farther away to the distance, but its disturbing memory is still present. Over a constant stream of quietly frantic eighth notes in the orchestra, a long trumpet line leads us. The eighth notes give way to a repeated rhythm in the low brass, answered by high woodwinds. A prominent line for clarinets, reinforced by icy violin false harmonics, lead to the return of the rising motive.

The rising motive seems to be the focal point of this section, and Pettersson slowly fills in the orchestral space around it. As the textures thicken the music intensifies, the rising motive becomes compressed, and the brass make a forceful annunciation. A repeated note motive in the brass tries to push the music over the edge. The climax never arrives and the music takes a new direction with swaying parallel thirds in bassoons, oboes and flutes. A steady march ensues, with orchestra commentary in fourth-based harmonies. The music intensifies again, with sharp attacks from percussion and brass. Repeated note brass attacks and clanging xylophone try to push the music over, but again the climax never arrives.

The music retreats to a slow burn, but quietly churning strings suggest that more is to come. Over a series of waves the music builds in intensity, with an increasing sense of strain. Slowly falling scales are played in the brass as the forest thickens, but once again, no climax is reached and the music simply disappears into a screaming, stratospheric Db, played by violins.

String sections enter one by one; an 8-part canon of ridiculous contrapuntal density. The forest gradually thins out as the string sections find common ground. The lower strings play drawn-out scale fragments, in both directions. We are now emerging from this world, and returning to the same gates from which we entered.

Muted low brass and tam-tam make an imposing and threatening entrance (for some reason I’m reminded of the coda to Shosty’s Symphony No. 11 here). The horns play a motive heard earlier, which I described as a fragment from the Symphony No. 10. Our emergence approaches a sense of completion as the opening music returns. Muted trumpets lead the final push, almost like a blinding light. In an a minor tonality, a slight flutter of Ab and Eb is heard; a small nuance to the sense of uncertainty as the symphony comes to a close. One could say that the battle (Symphony No. 10) and the aftermath (Symphony No. 11) are now behind us, but no closure has been achieved. All we know is that we’ve survived.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Nach Berlin. Wiederholung: NACH BERLIN!!!

A little while ago I humbly asked for your patience as the blog updates would slow down a bit, as I was going to cram an audition for the German-Scandinavian Youth Orchestra, even though I'm not quite young enough to officially qualify.

Well, either my audition sufficiently impressed them (doubtful) or perhaps they lowered their standards a bit for a Pettersson fan, but nevertheless, I'm in!!! 

It is worth noting that there has been a program change: maybe because of the fact that Pettersson's Symphony No. 7 is being "overplayed" on this anniversary year we are instead playing 8 of the Barefoot Songs and the first movement of the Symphony No. 8. I would have preferred that we play the whole symphony and drop out the Barefoot Songs, but one cannot be too picky. 

I'm horribly jet-lagged right now from a long plane journey, so I'm too delirious to believe that I actually made it in, but wow!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I've been Beebed!

Dear Friends,

On/around Allan's birthday there were several radio programs celebrating the great composer. In case you missed any of them, you can find them here (a huge thanks to Markus Brylka for recording them and putting them up!). On one of these programs was a performance of the Symphony No. 7 with the BBC Scottish SO under Stephen Bell.

Several months on this blog ago I wrote my thoughts on the Symphony No. 7, and I started it out with this paragraph:

"Imagine the scene. It is probably a slightly chilly evening in early fall, 13 October 1968, Stockholm. A young-ish crowd fills the main auditorium of the Stockholm Concert Hall to hear Antal Doráti and the Stockholm Philharmonic in the world premiere of a new symphony by Allan Pettersson, a name which was probably unfamiliar to many in the audience. At the end of this unbroken 41 minute symphony, a mighty work of darkness, conflict, consolation, and resignation, the audience pauses silently to catch its collective breath, briefly contemplates what had just taken place, and then erupts into thunderous, ecstatic applause. Allan Pettersson, now closing in on his 60th year, in poor health and probably in constant pain, is called to the podium four times. When was the last time in the second half of the 20th century that a world premiere of an orchestral work received such a response? Maybe James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie?"

As I do not have access to/cannot read the original reviews of the premiere performance, as they are in Swedish, what you see above is simply a (perhaps romanticized) impression of what I imagine happened. Most of this has been picked from various sources, such as CD program notes, and put together into the form above. So although there may be some degree of truth to this, I cannot say for sure that this is exactly what happened. 

My dear readers, do me a favor. Read my opening paragraph about the Symphony No. 7 again, then go ahead and listen to the BBC performance from one of the links above (I'll post my review of it in due time). Pay attention to what the announcer, Katie Derham, has to say as she introduces the piece. Sound familiar?! :) I have noticed that some of my readers have been visiting from IP addresses connected to the BBC... 

Made my day to know that I am an "accurate" and quote-worthy source of information on Allan Pettersson!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Get your Svenska up!

Dear Friends,

The Swedish channel SVT has put online an old documentary "Vem fan är Allan Pettersson?" (Who the hell is Allan Pettersson), which is unfortunately only in Swedish, without subtitles. With German and English I can probably get about 10%, but this is required viewing nevertheless for anyone who cares about Pettersson. Happy viewing!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Guest blog entry: Cecilia Gelland

Dear Friends, 

I am extremely pleased to post an essay written by Cecelia Gelland on her thoughts and experiences with the Seven Sonatas. I just received this today; perfect timing as today is Allan's 100th! Thanks again Cecilia!

I remember very well when Robert von Bahr from BIS called us. A particular, pungently green colour fills that memory, like a taste. We were with friends down the road, an artist living in a turn of the century spinage green wood house with a nice garden. I must have been looking at that green facade when the cell phone rang. We had sent our latest CD and some recordings from the Swedish Radio to Robert, with a program suggestion. Robert, the Swedish recording guru, had taken the time to listen. However, our ideas didn't fit in with their programming. I was happy enough that he spoke so respectfully about our playing, and expected that to be the end of the call. Instead he continued, asking: Would you record the Allan Pettersson duo cycle instead? We had never thought in those terms, Being well aware of the existing recording by the wonderful violinists Josef Grünfarb, who had been by teacher, and Karl-Ove Mannberg, whom we also knew. But it is already recorded, was all I could answer. I know, said Robert von Bahr, but it's old. We can record it much better now. And thus it was settled. I always wondered if Robert von Bahr really knew what he was doing right then. Allan Pettersson's duo cycle takes an hour. It explores the idiom of violin duo playing in ways noone ever had done before. It is musically highly demanding, and technically fearsome, balancing on the edge of what is possible ever so often. It also calls for profound communication in the ensemble playing. 

We planned to do it the following summer, but the birth of our first child moved it ahead a bit further. When the baby was three weeks old we performed the fourth sonata for the first time. Since she only slept in my arms, we had rehearsed it that way with me "singing" my part. For the recital she luckily slept in her swing chair. Two months later we played the fifth sonata in a number of classroom performances. The baby would sing and kick her legs eagerly at one particular passage following the intensified line with accelerating motions making a characteristic noise at the landing point of the phrase - the same way every time. The school children also reacted very susceptibly to the music. We had them paint the music while we played - a personal response, a memory. Teachers had prepared the aula with long tables and paper plates with paint and plastic cups of water. The children were 13 or 14, a sensitive age. They were absolutely quiet, totally absorbed. The result was stunning and moving. Some groups of kids had the opportunity to follow up by writing their own poetry. I remember that we did one recital for parents showing the paintings, reading the poetry and singing a canon made to one of the texts. We knew from before that the music could communicate, but even so, we were almost chocked at the intensity of the school children's feedback. These experiences stayed in the back of our heads as a source of strength and conviction as we continued chiseling out our interpretation of the cycle. We took our baby on a long tour through Sweden and Germany playing some sonatas in every program. In Stockholm we performed the whole set for the first time - the first time for anyone. It was the concert premier of the sonatas as one whole cycle. My parents were going to be with our daughter, but my mother got sick. The little pieces for piano were also on the program, with excellent pianist, Lennart Wallin, who also plays them with Martin on the BIS recording. He babysat while we played until I came running downstairs after an hour and he could rush up on stage. It was a profound experience to perform the entire cycle as a whole. It is a special gift to have a whole hour in your hands to knead and aim a bow across. For a violin duo it is an unusually large format. It is more like a symphony. It is a symphony in a way, conceived just before Pettersson started writing orchestral symphonies. Much of the material is also the same. And the way he contrasts the violins can certainly be called orchestrating. We treasured every minute of the performance, not because we felt so sure, but because it was just exceedingly stimulating to cooperate with the flow and its unexpected turns. Martin used to joke: if we continue playing this music much longer, I will go insane. The music is not sane in an ordinary sense. That's what's so wonderful about it. I kept finding the image in my mind of standing on a black rock in the sea in rain and storm and feeling more alive than ever. We did live just a couple of steps from the Baltic at the time with the grand view across rough waters through our upstairs practice room window. Sometimes the ferri boat to Finland would pass. I often sat on a rock on the beach nursing our baby. She had not yet turned one when we recorded the Pettersson cycle. These days we do all our recordings in churches up north, but at that time we went to Stockholm to do it in Danderyd's Aula, where BIS often recorded. It is not a hall with a beautiful tone, but it is neutral. Today we would have chosen a place with only natural reverb and with even greater sensitivity to colour, to bring out the differences between the instruments, but that hall was not at all bad to work with. We had to stop for outside noise sometimes, but not often. Once a toilet behind the hall got stuck and never wanted to stop refilling water. Mostly we could just keep working non stop for hours at a time. It is very different to play for the close up microphones when you are used to play for an audience. We wanted the same physical aspect to come through while keeping the extreme dynamics and colours, like the opening almost inaudible ppp. We had a discussion about that, but we got it our way. It is not a CD one should listen to in the car on the highway - though the speed might sometimes seem fitting. Especially in sonata number three, children frequently point out cars, like I heard my dad's Volvo. Listening with their ears I have also discovered some very roaring crescendi there. In number four I didn't like what the microphones did and changed the fingerings of the whole opening page. It can be disturbing to record when you are asked to dissect the work into smaller sections, but we had lived with the music in so many contexts for long enough that we weren't going to fall out of the emotional and structural connection with it. To me the recording session had something in common with labour. Nothing ever did itself, every progression demanding your outmost and the concentration must not flicker or rest for a moment. Five years later, performing the whole cycle in Germany, the critic tried to describe this by calling us bodybuilders of steel - three days before our second child was born, which he could not know. The last sonata to be recorded was number six, the glissando pizzicatos. It wears on the fingers to keep sliding fast, long distances. Even the right hand plucking fingers get worn. Everything is extreme, sometimes like a tipsy guitar or a mad mandolin . And you keep pushing yourself to make the sounds and effects answer to your imagination even more, through the artificial ears of the microphones. Before it was over I had five blisters - some on the left hand and some on the right hand.

I was relieved when we were done - and excited or even charged. Allan Pettersson made us believe in the violin duo constellation as much as he must have done himself. The previous performances had attracted a number of composer's interest in writing new violin duos. The recording would reach even more composers and become a mile stone in the modern history of the violin duo. We felt like we were standing at an open door to a whole world of potentials resonating towards us through two violins. If we had ever had the word string quartet on our lips, we had forgotten it now. We knew that we had found our vocation for life.


Happy 100!!!

Dear Friends,

For those of you following this blog you have most likely noticed the recent lack of updates, as I am currently focusing my musical energy on preparing for an audition. But I’m sure you knew I wouldn’t forget this day!

Happy 100th birthday, Allan!

Although I did not make my initial goal of surveying all the orchestral works before this day, I am still more than happy to continue working on this blog over the coming months. There are still many more works to get through, a new recording of Pettersson’s first two symphonies, and a documentary film. I will be in Norrköping for the performance of Symphony No. 6 (I have been waiting 12 years to hear a live performance of this piece) and I hope that early next year I can write about my experiences as an orchestral musician playing Pettersson.

It pains me greatly to say this but I will have to miss two very important upcoming events: the weekend of concerts put on by the Swedish Pettersson society the first weekend of October (I’ll be in the states) and the German performances of the Concerto No. 2 for violin and orchestra and the Seven Sonatas in November, as it is at the same time as the Norrköping concerts (gah!!!). Still, one should be very grateful that these performances are taking place, even if I have to miss them…

In honor of this unsung master’s birthday, I encourage all of you to listen to your favorite work(s) or any of these radio programs celebrating this occasion. While listening, think about why Pettersson’s music is important to you; think about what grabbed you, moved you, or blew you away the first time you heard this music. Think about how Pettersson, whose life was filled with suffering and indignity, summoned from every corner of his being a sheer force of will and an unbreakable spirit to create this music.

As for me, I’ll be glued to my computer radio listening to the Deutschland Radio program.

The survey resumes next month, after my audition. Talk to you all then!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 10

In this review I’ll be discussing the two available recordings of this piece, on CPO and BIS. For fans of this work, it must have been a strange and exciting thing in the late nineties, going from having no available recordings to having two high quality performances released pretty much within a year of each other.

Symphony No. 10
NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover
Alun Francis, conductor
CPO 999 285-2

Similar to his other installments in the CPO cycle, Francis leads a performance which is never less than good, although he falls short on a few points compared to Segerstam. First of all, the NDR Radiophilharmonie sounds like it is really struggling with the enormous technical challenges which this piece presents, although this is sometimes an asset (see below). At approximately 27 minutes, Francis is noticeably slower than Segerstam (25 minutes), and despite the brevity and intense material concentration of this piece, at times this performance gets just a little bogged down. The trombones and percussion, so crucial in this piece, are rather timid and lacking in power. In general, the brass attacks have a soft, almost polite edge to them.

However, this performance has an edge over Segerstam in a few areas. Despite the slower tempo, the NDR band sounds noticeably more uncomfortable with this music compared to their Swedish counterparts, and in some ways this increases the sense of desperation and chaos. Take the strings, for example, who sound as if they are walking a tightrope in a hurricane. Francis’ tempo also pays dividends in at 5 after rehearsal 46 (track 3, 3:05), allowing the sense of impending defeat and fear to register with greater impact. Despite the relatively timid percussion, Francis really brings out the sixteenth note runs in the celeste and xylophone at 1 after rehearsal 42 (track 3, 1:53), which is a nice detail that is lost in Segerstam’s recording.

Symphony No. 10
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam
BIS CD-880

Segerstam brings his trademark “clean and mean” approach to this performance: clarity of orchestral detail, sharp brass and percussion attacks, and rapid tempos. The Norrköping symphony, by no means a household name on the world orchestral stage, plays with unbelievable virtuosity and confidence. Listen to the brass, who play at full bore pretty much from beginning to end without any loss of power or impact. The percussion are menacingly present, in particular the rumbling tenor drum (I’ll admit I could use more bass drum and tam-tam). Or how about the chilling section at 4 before rehearsal 54 (14:08), where Segerstam really does make us feel cold, alone, and abandoned.

Despite the excellent playing I find this recording to be somewhat lacking in impact as well—perhaps this might be a function of the distant soundstage. Considering how dense Pettersson’s orchestration is, this might have been a conscious decision made by the engineers to allow the overall picture to register at a slight loss of presence. 

If I had to choose just one recording it would be Segerstam. However, Francis’ take is also worth your attention.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Symphony No. 10 (1972)

Sorry for the delay. I am practicing now, more than I have in years, so hopefully that is a legitimate excuse. 

This symphony is another instance of where I really wish I knew more about the biographical circumstances of Pettersson’s life during the time of composition. From what I know, the story goes like this: shortly after completing his gargantuan Symphony No. 9 Pettersson spends the next nine (!!!) months in Karolinska Hospital for a life-threatening kidney ailment, presumably triggered by the medication he was taking for rheumatoid arthritis. Apparently he sketched portions of his Symphonies No. 10 and 11 on gauze bandages and compresses (although I imagine that Gudrun could have just brought him some manuscript paper).

Regardless, the Symphony No. 10 is, along with the Symphony No. 6, one of my all-time favorite Pettersson symphonies. It never fails to move me at each hearing; just thinking about it gives me chills and goose-bumps. If there was such a thing as life-or-death music, this would be it. This music is the ultimate embodiment of the human spirit’s sheer force of will.

Unsurprisingly, this is crazy, brutal music. Despite the symphony’s relative brevity (around 26 minutes), every player is pushed to the limit, and then pushed even further. For the snare drum player it is almost non-stop playing; it could be the best thing since Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 or the worst thing since Bolero. Despite all this, however, one never gets the sense that Pettersson is being gratuitously loud, dissonant, or brutal just for the sake of shock or effect; the music comes across as if this is exactly the way it should be. Unfortunately, the CPO liner notes actually has no information on the premiere of this symphony, but according to Juergen Lange’s webpage, the premiere took place on 16 December 1973.

Pettersson wastes no time jumping headfirst into the conflict. A rapid sixteenth note run, almost a snarl, starts on a low C in low strings and bassoons. The run hits a C# and drops right back down to the low C (the space of a minor ninth). A solo trumpet, doubled by first violins, announces the call to battle: a leap of a fifth followed by a leap of a tritone (E-B-F). This battle call, both rhythmically and/or intervallically, will come back constantly. By this time, in just the space of a few measures, Pettersson has introduced all the material from which the symphony will be derived.

Although it is clear from the symphony’s outset that this is a battle, to me the first few minutes seem like Pettersson is surveying the battlefield or assessing his opponent. Relatively speaking, here the music is lacking some of the strain and conflict which will be found in overabundance as the symphony progresses. The battle really gets going, I would say 5 after rehearsal 15 (repeated stabbing attacks from trumpets and trombones in a 6/8 feel superimposed on 2/2).

Violins, then horns introduce a repeated note motive, creating a more palpable sense of desperation. A passage for solo violins leads to a somewhat dreamy section of string sections exchanging ascending licks canonically. Horns and strings offer commentary with falling gestures. Low woodwinds and double basses provide a gently undulating accompaniment. Interjections from brass and percussion threaten this state of relative calm. These interjections become increasingly aggressive. 

Rather than reaching a climax, the music peaks and quickly falls back into a calmer state. The following section could be described as a sort of “fantasia” on the battle call. Over a steady woodwind accompaniment strings trade the battle call, first ascending, then descending. The battle call returns to the ascending direction, harmonized in fourths, as the music becomes agitated. The entrance of xylophone and a truncated variation of the opening scale return the music to the conflict.

The brass now take the lead in the musical argument, inexorably pushing the music to a climax of sorts: repeated off-beat brass chords antagonizing the tuba, which plays a conflicting rhythm. Angular strings, shrill piccolo and rapid runs from xylophone and celeste are followed by muted trumpets, suggesting that the music is quickly moving to another climax.

However, the music dies down in volume, where we enter another “fantasia.” Over a swirling sea of surging string clusters, the bass instruments trade a variation on the battle call. The variation moves into the higher instruments of the orchestra, introducing the next phase of the conflict.

Over celeste runs and xylophone glissandi the brass alternate between spitting, hurling gestures and groups of repeated note triplets. Listen to how the tuba struggles to fight back against this onslaught. The music builds up to a variation of the battle call (using the pitches E-B-F-Db), stated forcefully, followed by extremely strained string clusters.

The music takes a turn: trumpets, violins and violas play a slowly falling line. A sense of fear and anxiety has come over, as if defeat is near and inevitable. Listen to the amazing rhythmic interplay between the brass and percussion. The entrance of the low brass and timpani on a low F pedal, along with an ascending trumpet leads to horns announcing the opening battle call: the fight is far from over.

However, a sense of defeat returns. Upper strings trade slowly falling lines over a quietly swirling accompaniment from the cellos. The effect here is like being left for dead, alone, in a frozen, desolate landscape. However, the low brass slowly but steadily reassert themselves, leading to piercing, screaming alarm calls of open fifths played by high woodwinds, trumpets, and violins. Underneath this is a constant Shostakovichian march rhythm played by snare and tenor drum along with leaping, sputtering horns. The battle resumes.

Timpani, in the “Janacek-register” (G below middle C) insistently pound out the rhythm of the opening battle cry. Stratospheric, screaming violins try to sing a lament, but repeated motives from the low brass (variations on the E-B-F-Db motive, see above) and percussion maintain a sense of extreme strain. 

The extremely protracted G pedal established by the timpani essentially serves as a dominant for the next section: finally, the music reaches a c minor lament. However, there is a constant sense of forward motion; this is not a place of true calm. The lament is heard in two long phrases—the second time a steady percussion beat moves the music ahead.

However, as expected, there is no time to stay here; the fight to survive continues. Over a snare drum roll the opening scale run is heard, followed by violas announcing the battle call. Although this seems like a recap of sorts it becomes quickly clear that something is different. Everything is more compact, tighter. In short succession previously heard rhythms and motives are played, as if Pettersson were taking the key points of the symphony and compressing them. The music moves inexorably to the final, white-hot, delirious rush to the finish: shrieking piccolo, screaming horns and trumpets, and earth-rattling timpani push to the final C# Major chord. However, this is not a triumphant resolution, but almost like a quick blow. I can’t remember who wrote this, but this description works perfectly here: is the last chord a final “fist in the air” of defiance, or “is it a punch to the face?”

Wow.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ich muss üben. Wiederholung: Ich MUSS üben!

Dear Friends,

By now you are probably thinking that it is unlikely that I will make it through the rest of Pettersson’s orchestral works between now and 19 September. You are right, I will not. In fact, I’m afraid to tell you all that I will be slowing down on the updates for a while, but don’t worry; I have not abandoned the cause, but far from it.

As I mentioned in a previous post the Deutsch-Skandinavische Jugend Philharmonie will be performing Pettersson’s Symphony No. 7 in Berlin early next year. I am not sure what level this orchestra plays at, but I am assuming very high. It seems that this orchestra is designed for young music students or freelancers with aspirations of becoming professional orchestral players. Despite having played cello seriously for many years I am definitely not on track for becoming a professional orchestral musician.

Although I am older than the age limit, I sent a message to the conductor, Andreas Peer Kähler, asking if he would be willing to make an exception for a Pettersson fan like myself. He said he had no problem with my age, but I had to, like everyone else, audition.

I really think this is a longshot for me. There are only 10 cello positions in this orchestra. Even if I was still in my playing prime I am guessing that the people who audition for this orchestra are at a higher level. Furthermore, this orchestra is an opportunity for young musicians to hone their orchestral playing skills; not for someone like me, who just wants a chance to play Pettersson’s music in an orchestra.

Regardless, I have to try; I have to audition. So the updates will slow down a bit as I try to get my chops back into shape. Don’t worry, I’ll still get to the blog as time permits. Anyways, wish me luck, and I gotta get practicing…

Monday, June 20, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 9

Symphony No. 9
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Alun Francis, conductor
CPO 999 231-2

This will be a pretty short review, as CPO has the only currently available recording of this piece. From what I know, there was another recording of this work conducted by Sergiu Comissiona, which is worth talking about briefly.

There seems to be some confusion about the proper duration of this work. According to the score, Pettersson indicates a performance time of approximately 65-70 minutes, and Francis is on the slow end of this—just under 70 minutes. Comissiona’s recording, on the other hand, was apparently close to 90 (!) minutes. Although I imagine that Comissiona prepared the performance and recording with the composer’s input, I don’t see this piece working at such tempos. For a piece with this level of repetition to be played convincingly, it needs to move.

Anyhow, as expected with Francis’ contributions to the CPO cycle, the playing is nothing less than very good—in this case one must commend the DSO Berlin for valiantly overcoming the unending (and oftentimes terribly ungrateful) technical challenges this piece presents. However, unlike Francis’ earlier symphonies in the cycle, such as 2-4, the recorded sound here is rather distant and lacking in impact. For example, there are several passages where the cellos and basses strings saw and hack away in their lower register—I would like to hear strings slapping fingerboards and a bit of gruffness as the rosin flies into the air. Maybe that’s how it would have been live, but I’m guessing that the mikes were placed too far away for that to register. Or what about those brass enunciations (4 measures before rehearsal 154), which should be Brucknerian room-filling walls of sound, but instead come across a bit too timid.  

These are minor quibbles for an achievement that should not be underestimated--Francis and his Berlin band have done a superb job. As Segerstam never got around to this piece in his BIS cycle I eagerly await to hear Lindberg’s results. (BTW, when is his recording of the Symphony No. 2 going to come out?!)