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.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful and interesting piece! The most striking part - the way Pettersson's music worked on the baby and the school children. Quite amazing. You need people with fresh ears to appreciate Pettersson's music, it seems.