Friday, July 20, 2012

Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra (1977)

One of the nice things about conducting this survey is reassessing and rediscovering works in Pettersson’s oeuvre that I thought I “knew.” Although the Concerto No. 2 for Violin was not a piece I would come back to regularly, when I first heard this work over a decade ago I considered it one of my favorite Pettersson works. This probably had something to do with the somewhat ear-flattering conclusion, when the Barefoot Song Herren går på ängen is stated eloquently and clearly.

While I have always (and still do) find the conclusion to this work to be beautiful and moving, overall I find this work somewhat unconvincing. I was a little surprised to arrive at this conclusion, because with the exception of the Symphony No. 3 and Concerto for String Orchestra No. 2 I have been able to come to some kind of personal understanding of what I feel is the emotional “message” of each work in Pettersson’s orchestral oeuvre. Even the Symphonies No. 11, 12, and 13, which in my opinion possess greater degrees of elusiveness and/or inaccessibility, are ultimately more satisfying.

Nevertheless, despite the work’s length (about 55 minutes) the music is consistently engaging. Even if I found the music completely impenetrable I would still enjoy as a string player, with the work’s nearly non-stop assault on the soloist’s stamina and technique. It might well be the most difficult violin concerto that I have ever heard or heard of that is fully notated and does not employ extended techniques.

Although the Barefoot Song is not clearly stated until the last quarter of the work, this song is the foundation of the entire composition. At least to my ears, the interval of the third is extremely important in the construction of the song’s melody; accordingly this interval is used extensively in the construction of the ideas and motives which Pettersson uses.
The work opens with a climbing bass line, in the bottom depths of the orchestra. The rest of the strings enter, mostly in their upper registers. The soloist enters at the extreme top end of upper register, singing a long melody.  After a brief foray in the soloist’s low/middle register, the music begins, predictably, to become agitated.

The sense of agitation continues as the music moves into double tempo. The soloist weaves this section around the open D string, eventually passing this idea off to the orchestral violins. The soloist strains and climbs upwards, but comes careening down. Following an upward surge from the horns, the soloist returns in its upper register with a desperate melody. Repeated Fs in the horns introduce the next section. The Fs are then taken over by the lover strings.

Listen to the appearance of a clear fragment from the song, played by tuba and contrabassoon. The same instruments, along with double basses, now propel the music forward. The music becomes impassioned as the soloist plays in octave double stops. A somewhat mournful (but satisfying) conclusion to this section arrives.

Sharp brass attacks with snare drum contributions follows. The song is heard again in the low winds, with the soloist participating as well. Orchestral strings accompany with a gesture based on repeated notes. The repeated note gesture is broadened rhythmically, played by horns and trumpets. The soloist takes the song in its low register. A gesture based on neighbor pitches begins to gain prominence. A brief section with slashing orchestral violins, along with contribution from snare drum and horns, follows.

The soloist builds up the next section from its low register, but quickly becomes impassioned, playing octave double stops. Listen to how the orchestra accompanies the soloist with repeated sixteenth notes here.

After an orchestral tutti (listen to the horns here!) comes what could be one of the coolest sections, at least rhythmically, of all of Pettersson’s orchestral output. The snare drum accompanies the soloist, falling into a groove which one might expect Pettersson to repeat for a long stretch of time. Instead, he throws a wrench into the gears, and the rhythm starts getting tripped up in a fascinating and engaging way (Pettersson even alternates between 7/8 and 2/2 time here, something I don’t think I’ve seen before in his music).

When Pettersson arrives at the next section we find ourselves in a different landscape. The soloist, at the top of its register, is accompanied by orchestral strings alone, also in a top register. A solo trombone comes in, followed by contributions from other sections of the orchestra. The music quickly becomes agitated again.

Over a rapidly churning orchestral accompaniment (listen to bassoons and violas) the soloist wanders in its low register. Orchestral cellos take up the song. We arrive at what could be the first true turning point. After a brief, unambiguous c minor, a rising and falling motive, based on the song and harmonized in perfect fifths, serves to accompany the soloist.

A clear statement of the song by oboe followed by flutes and piccolo introduce the next section. The soloist introduces a falling gesture distinguished by four sixteenths followed by a dotted quarter. The music tries to build up but is cut off. The music tries to build up again, but is cut off by an impassioned mini cadenza by the soloist. The falling gesture returns, accompanied by swirling, dreaming woodwinds. An orchestral tutti follows, with horns taking the falling gesture in half time.

The soloist, moving indiscriminately between registers, is accompanied by strained violin pizzicati and arco arpeggios, featuring open strings. The soloist takes up the falling gesture again, against a somewhat clangorous contribution from violin arpeggios and quadruple stops (again featuring open strings) along with muted trumpets.

The next tutti suggests a culmination of sorts. When the orchestra gives way to the soloist, we are given this kinda weird lick in C# major. We come back to a clear c minor, led by horns. After a beautiful, but strained resolution to e minor, the soloist begins a lengthy climb, moving mostly chromatically. Multiple stops from the soloist serve to bridge sections.

Another arrival at c minor feels like a true breaking point, but Pettersson takes us back into the storm. The tuba gives us the song, this time in a higher register. Slashing upper strings and snare drum accompany the soloist. Following a fairly lengthy arpeggio passage for the soloist, we come back, again to c minor. Amid slashing, screaming orchestral violins the music appears to very briefly make an attempt to climb out of the conflict. The music moves to e minor. By now I get the feeling that Pettersson IS beginning to truly loosen the thumbscrews. The music returns to c minor; the soloist sings above. The next section could fall into the Petterssonian “lyrical island” section. Unadulterated beauty is finally trying to establish itself on the once turbulent landscape. Despite this, the music does become strained and many “wrong” notes are found. The music does build up, but a true climax is not reached; rather, the music returns to e minor, somewhat march-like. This does not last long, and the music gently unravels. We hear a lone note held by a solo flute… (see below)

Now Pettersson brings in the song, finally, pure and unadulterated. I have to say I don’t think Pettersson sets us up very well for this; a lone G# held by a solo flute forces us into E major. Once we enter this new world Pettersson even notates the music in E major (I don’t remember anywhere else in Pettersson’s orchestral works where he uses a key signature). The song is led by the solo violin, with beautiful countermelodies provided by muted trumpet and piccolo. The music wanders a bit in this beautiful landscape. Low brass enter with a rocking motive, but the music remains peaceful overall. Orchestral strings take over the song.

Solo horn and clarinet lead a transition back to minor. Pettersson removes the key signature and the music returns to a state of agitation. A held chord on upper orchestral strings leads to a half-step upward modulation, and the solo violin gives us one more phrase of defiance, but this is short-lived, and the song returns, again in a notated E major.
This time around the song is a little broader, and the accompaniment has a stronger rhythmic profile. Listen to the heartbreakingly beautiful arrival on c# minor (G# in the bass). 

The solo violin now moves the song to the top register, and the orchestral accompaniment becomes even more lively, almost jolly (listen to the bassoons here). Something starts to go wrong, as C naturals begin to enter the landscape, however, this never goes beyond the point of being a minor disturbance. Pettersson takes out the key signature, and the music yearns and strains for one final push. Gentle tam-tam strokes further emphasize this sense of striving. A truly cathartic foray into G# major precedes a final flourish in E major, as the soloist rises and fades away while singing the song.

In my opinion it is particularly worth mentioning that in the concerto Pettersson never uses the beautiful amen cadence which graces (pun intended!) the conclusion of each phrase in the original piano/vocal version of the song. Perhaps in the original song the cadence reflects the naïve mindset of the young Pettersson (I doubt it) or, more likely, it is representative of the (naïve?) piety of Pettersson’s mother. In the concerto Pettersson gives us sustained conflict for the majority of the work; although he slowly loosens the thumbscrews as the work progresses I do not think the arrival of the song feels inevitable, rather, it feels forced. So, is Pettersson arriving at some sort of religiously-infused peace at the end, or is he simply forcing the issue, and using a religiously-infused song as his reference point?

Enough pontificating on that point. After this reassessment I find this work engaging, certainly more so on the surface level  in comparison to its predecessor. In terms of it being emotionally satisfying as a whole, well, I don’t think I’m quite convinced yet.

1 comment:

  1. I still find this work to be Pettersson's masterpiece.