Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra (1949-1950)

On this entry, I’ll be focusing on Pettersson’s first work for large ensemble, his Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra. Fans of Pettersson the symphonist will find themselves in more familiar territory here compared to the Barefoot Songs. Some of our favorite Pettersson fingerprints are found in abundance here: repetition, insistent use of just a handful of intervals, extremes of dynamics and register, virtuosic demands of the musicians involved, conflict and tension. What a difference a few years makes!

Pettersson wrote his Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra during the years 1949-1950. At this point he had about a decade of performing experience as a section violist in the now Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as composition studies with (correct me if I’m wrong here) Blomdahl and Olsson in Stockholm. The first performance of this approximately 20-minute work took place on 6 April 1952, with Tor Mann leading the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. One of the reviewers of this performance, Teddy Nyblom, said something to the effect that the only solution to Pettersson’s dilemma (artistic dilemma?) was to stop composing. Ouch.

The work is divided into three movements: I. Allegro – II. Andante – III. Largamente-Allegro, with the first two movements played attaca. I hope you like your fourths and fifths, cause that’s what you’re getting in this piece, and you’re going to get a lot of them. Immediately from the outset Pettersson establishes his uncompromising stance. The work opens up with stabbing repeated notes from the violas, with a strong rhythmic profile (as I don’t have the score, I’ll be making guesses as to which instruments play what). The upper strings play angular fifths and fourths, along with a repeated sighing motive of falling minor seconds. Depending on how this opening gambit is played (I’ll get to that in the recording reviews), the word abrasive comes to mind. Ghostly passages for unison strings and solo cadenzas are peppered throughout the landscape. After the lower strings play a gruff, rosiny recap of the opening fourth and fifth motive, Psycho-like slashing clusters in the upper strings, followed by equally emphatic unison Es (E natural, not E-flat!) start the transition to the 2nd movement.

The 2nd movement, though less frenetic in feel, has a feeling of latent, slow-burning tension. This movement opens up with a G – D motive which is then repeated obsessively. Insistent repeated Ds move the music forward and tighten the thumbscrews until a low C# is reached. Solo strings enter, soon returning to full strings. The G – D motive comes back. A weird, expansive, quasi-Mahlerian, almost maudlin passage in C#/D-flat major tonality arrives, followed by the G – D motive again. The movement closes with a strained, but beautiful transition from F# major to F# minor.

The 3rd movement opens with a brief exploration of fourths at broad tempo, soon moving into music similar in feel and pace of the 1st movement. Out of nowhere, cheeky, queasy music is heard, before going back to the good ol’ fourths. The music broadens, with the lower strings following the upper strings canonically and separated by a minor ninth. The music becomes more insistent and desperate. A solo violin cadenza is played. The lower strings burrow their way forcefully to the depths, while the violins play some absolutely ridiculous acrobatics in a stratospheric register. While the lower strings keep the music anchored in the depths, the upper strings play this ghosty, shadowy figure in their upper registers, foreshadowing the conclusion of the work. This figure returns in the final bars, played with dark eloquence on the violin’s lowest register over an E-flat minor tonality. Although Pettersson plays with major-minor here (for example the G and C naturals), there is no escaping the darkness. The piece ends with a final E-flat minor chord.

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