Monday, April 16, 2012

Vox Humana (1974)

Vox Humana
Marianne Mellnäs (Soprano), Margot Rödin (Alto)
Sven-Erik Alexandersson (Tenor), Erland Hagegård (Bariton), 
Swedish Radio Choir
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Stig Westerberg, conductor

I must admit that before I began this survey, I had never listened to this piece. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was anticipating that it would be recognizably Petterssonian from the outset, perhaps strident string writing reminiscent of the string orchestra concertos, accompanying a choir (which is struggling to be heard above the tumult). The first time I heard the opening two movements (I am using the Naxos Music Library here) I double-checked to make sure that I was actually listening to Pettersson and not Rosenberg, the other composer on this disc. Although in some of the later movements it is clear that we are listening to Pettersson, I must admit that when I heard the first few measures I didn’t notice those distinctly Petterssonian stamps which define the rest of this output.

I only have access to the song texts but not the program notes which come with the BIS CD, so I really cannot say much about the work’s history. In the early 1970s it was clear that Pettersson was attracted to the writings of Latin American poets, as the social and human message in these poems must have resonated with the composer. While Neruda is featured on Vox Humana, Pettersson also sets the text of several other poets in this work (Bandeira, Laínez, Retamar, Vallejo, Mendes, Guillén, Ricardo, and Barnet, to be precise). In contrast to the Symphony No. 12, with a rather consistent message found in the Neruda texts, in this work the subject matter of the poems is somewhat more varied.

As I’ve said before, I’m a poetry and literature moron, so whatever I think about the meaning of these poems should be taken with a grain of salt. If I had to generalize I would say that these poems, taken together, are a group of portraits depicting life of people who are at the bottom of society, forgotten. However, noticeably absent in comparison to the Symphony No. 12 is the nearly constant feeling of rage, indignity, and overt defiance. The music reflects this as well.

One of the unique aspects of this work is it pretty much the only place in Pettersson’s output to hear the composer’s a cappella choral writing, which is quite beautiful. Particularly effective are moments when Pettersson employs a solo voice accompanied by choir, such as in the thirteenth poem of Part I, The Final Poem (Den sista dikten), in this case tenor solo and male choir. Here I am reminded of similar moments in Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. It really is quite special to hear Pettersson’s choral writing without constant orchestral harassment.

In general, I consider Pettersson to be a dead-serious composer, as I really do not find much in the way of sarcasm or irony in his orchestral works (there’s a moment in the Symphony No. 15, which I’ll get to later on). However, Pettersson occasionally employs a matter-of-fact or even ironic style, which is sometimes a stark contrast of the grim subject matter of some of these poems. For example, listen to the recurring motif of repeated major thirds in A man goes past (En man går förbi). Or the sultry entrance of the violas in Lynch, which kinda feels like a hot, humid night in the deep southern United States where probably countless African-Americans were subjected to unspeakable injustices.

Although I mentioned earlier that this work does not sound consistently Petterssonian, any doubts about the composer’s identity are dispelled by the music accompanying the poems such as The Unrepentent (Den obotfärdige), Che, and the final movement The Great Joy (Den stora glädjen). In the last movement there are some moments of redemptive beauty despite sounding rather preachy with its text-book socialist message.

While this work is certainly more accessible than its predecessor there is not an overt sense of symphonic integration, but this is probably not the point. Nevertheless, this piece occupies a unique place in Pettersson’s oeuvre and provides an opportunity to hear another side of the composer’s gift.

With only one recording available of this work I won’t go into a review of the qualities/deficiencies of this performance, other than to say that I feel that is sufficiently representative of the composer’s intentions.

Now if is finally time to get to Pettersson’s other symphonic behemoth, the Symphony No. 13.
Talk to you then.

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