Monday, March 21, 2011

Concerto No. 3 for String Orchestra (1956–1957)

The Concerto No. 3 for String Orchestra is the pinnacle of Pettersson’s three works in this form, and is arguably the most ambitious statement of his works from the 1950s. In terms of length, it is longer than any of his previous symphonies or the first two string orchestra concertos put together. In this work, Pettersson begins to find a balance between the neurotic, nervous energy of his early works (such as the Seven Sonatas) and unhurried lyricism.

While there is no denying the magnitude of Pettersson’s achievement in this work, in some ways I feel that Pettersson needs the full aural resources of the large modern orchestra to do justice (take his writing for percussion and horns, for example) to his expressive needs, particularly over such a large canvas. This work was commissioned by the Swedish Radio, and the premiere took place on 14 March 1958 at a Concerts for New Music series led by Tor Mann.

The first movement, Allegro con moto, embodies the conflict between music of neurotic, nervous energy and heartbreaking lyricism. The movement opens with an upward thrusting gesture of assertive nature; the first three notes are played unison for extra emphasis, with violins alone taking over afterwards. This opening theme is actually a tone row, although this piece is by no means a serial work. Pettersson explores this opening idea for a while, then introduces a rapid turn-like figure, which subsequently gains a foothold in the musical landscape. As the movement progresses, Pettersson’s trademark repeated notes are found in abundance. These repeated notes morph into the first lyrical island of the movement, which is filled with grief and a deep sense of yearning. Here Pettersson stays mostly within the given tonality, unlike the lyrical islands in Symphonies No. 2 or 4, which are peppered with “wrong notes.”

Leaving this lyrical island we enter a section featuring a series of brief cadenzas for solo violin, flanked by passages of busy contrapuntal textures for the full ensemble. As the music calms down to ruminations in the low strings, a drawn out downward scale (based on the earlier solo violin cadenzas) takes us into the next lyrical island. This one is similar to its predecessor, with a clear sense of yearning, but with an even deeper sense of sadness.

Swirling, ascending figures shake us out of this lyrical island. At about the two-thirds point in the first movement, Pettersson recaps the opening theme, but repeated notes take the music in a different direction. The music picks up momentum, reaching a passage of dizzying energy, marked by upward glissandi. Another passage of yearning, this time particularly strained, leads into a mournful cadential figure. Pettersson then repeats this gesture—music of yearning followed by the same mournful cadential figure, in the same tonality. Here I am reminded of the 10th movement of Shosty’s Symphony No. 14, where Shostakovich repeats this terribly depressing, life-is-not-worth-living-anymore cadential figure three times, each time in the same tonality (more Shosty is coming, see below).

The second movement, Mesto, is the emotional core of the work. At approximately 25 minutes, this movement is about the same length as the outer movements combined and is sometimes played in concert as a separate piece (this movement was supposed to be played in Stockholm this spring). To my ears Pettersson alternates between two kinds of music—the opening song of sadness, and later on, a song of affirmation or salvation, maybe of hope. However, as expected with Pettersson, these surface descriptions are probably inadequate for all the things that are being expressed.

The movement begins with violins quietly intoning the opening song. Pettersson does not waste any time, however, in introducing elements of conflict. Deep tones from the cellos and basses, accompanied by repeated notes, lead to the first appearance of the song of affirmation. We just get a glimpse of this song for now, as a repeated note figure with a tritone leap moves the music to another direction. Shadows of the song of affirmation return, at the same time the music assumes a vaguely threatening tone, picking up momentum. Solo strings enter the landscape, with the solo violin taking an important role. Repeated notes introduce the song of affirmation, but again, just for a glimpse. The opening chord is briefly recapitulated, before leading into music of strained passion. As the music calms down, solo strings re-enter, this time in a passage of heartbreaking simplicity and purity. The sense of yearning is clear, but a shift to minor tonality robs the music of any great apotheosis at this point.

The song of affirmation returns (again introduced by repeated notes), this time it is given a chance to more fully express itself. A sense of hope and calmness takes over, before the song restates itself, this time with greater intensity. A passage of ponticello playing and sighing minor seconds take us away from the song. The tritone motive reappears, and soon takes over the musical landscape.

The opening song is recapitulated, this time with great intensity and feeling. Nasal open E strings from the violins create a disturbance, and subsequent large leaps from the violins try to push the music to another direction. As the music reaches a cadence, listen to the quote from Shosty’s String Quartet No. 8. The opening song comes back, again with great intensity and feeling. Nasal opens E string again disturb the proceedings. A passage of grief follows, soon building up to great agitation. The song of affirmation comes back, but again that E takes the music to another direction. This gesture is soon repeated.

In the coda of this movement, the music tries to find a way to resolve but continually frustrates itself. Eventually the song of affirmation is found, this time without the E, and the song is allowed to breathe. However, a solo viola (?) ends the movement with a question mark.

In the final movement, Allegro con moto, Pettersson further explores the material introduced in the first movement. The introductory gesture is a clear variation of the first movement opening. However, the music soon explores other paths, in particular passages of busy and angular contrapuntal writing. Ghostly, shadowy textures, reminiscent of the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra, are heard. A brief passage of grief is repeated several times, but is taken over by music of an insistent nature (listen to those F#s, for example). The ghostly textures return, elaborating on the opening gesture. After an even more insistent exploration of the opening gesture (particularly on a lick based on 16th notes), the music finds itself in D minor, but with a brief flash of D major. D minor soon reasserts itself, and over a long D pedal the upper strings offer commentary, as the music fades into silence.

As much as I admire this work, after this recent reevaluation I am still not completely convinced—there is a degree of long-windedness and unnecessary repetition. I find it strange that Pettersson’s most successful works of this period are also the earliest, namely his Seven Sonatas and Symphony No.2. There is a lot of nervous contrapuntal writing in this work, but when dealing with the somewhat more limited sound-world of strings only, in my opinion compact and concise packaging works better, such as in the Seven Sonatas. Pettersson’s beautiful and heartbreaking lyrical islands, of which there are plenty of in this work, seem to work better in the later symphonies, where I feel like one truly “earns” these moments after a protracted struggle. We still have one more symphony to go before getting to Pettersson’s middle period, starting with the Symphony No. 5, where Pettersson really starts to find, and refine, his unique voice.

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