Sunday, March 6, 2011

Concerto No. 2 for String Orchestra (1956)

By the time Pettersson wrote this piece he already had a fair amount of experience composing in large forms for orchestral forces—two completed symphonies (three if you include the first) and the Concerto for String Orchestra No.1. However, unlike the completed symphonies and the concerto, Pettersson had to wait over a decade for the first performance. In the summer of 1967, Pettersson was awarded a work scholarship from the Swedish Building Workers’ Union. In gratitude, the composer dedicated this piece to the union, as he had nothing else suitable at the moment. The premiere took place in December 1968 by Stig Westerberg and the Swedish Radio SO, just weeks after the successful premiere of the Symphony No. 7.

I find this concerto to be rather elusive compared to the other two, and after repeated listening this piece has grown on me a bit. Regardless, at this point I would readily take the other concertos over this one. One particularly striking feature of this concerto compared to the previous one is the lack of surface tension. Whereas the music in the first concerto always seemed to be in a state of conflict, Pettersson seems concerned with other issues here. One hears development and repetition of motives and rhythms, but not nearly to the same brutal insistence as say, the Seven Sonatas.

This work has a performance time of approximately 27 minutes, and like the other two concertos, is divided into three movements. The first movement, Allegro, begins with a downward angular gesture from the violins. Immediately after we get some Petterssonian repeated-note motives, but not of the violently insistent variety. Listen carefully and you can hear shadows of the coda of the opening movement of Sibelius’ icy Symphony No. 4. We are taken to a small lyrical island followed by chamber-music textures by solo strings. A song is heard among the busy counterpoint.

The second movement, Dolce e molto tranquillo, has a cold, distant beauty to it. Fragile pianissimo lines slow weave between each other in a shifting web of resolutions and quietly grinding dissonances. The final resolution to Eb minor (followed by a rather surprising morph into Ab major) is both beautiful and effectively done.

In the third movement, Allegro, Pettersson turns up the conflict meter, but also gives us plenty of rich lyricism. I hear a little Shostakovich (to me I hear the third movement of the Symphony No. 15) and also in the repeated major triads towards the end (String Quartet No. 3? Last movement of the Michaelangelo suite?). Listen for the gruff, rustic Bartokian folk dance. And of course, many listeners will notice Pettersson’s near direct quote of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Immediately before this one can also hear the opening gesture from Barber’s Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings, which was actually written over two decades later (Could Barber have known about Pettersson??? Nah.) Unfortunately, this movement doesn’t sound very cohesive to me, and it does overstay its welcome a little, despite the many beautiful and interesting moments.

All in all, I find this work to be less than entirely convincing compared to the rest of the composer’s output. Nevertheless, as ANY Pettersson is worth your time, I encourage you to listen to this work and decide for yourself.

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