Friday, August 24, 2012

Symphony No. 15 (1978)

This work holds a special place in my heart, as even before this survey it was one of the handful of symphonies which I would regularly return to. After becoming re-acquainted with the Symphony No. 14 in the past month or so, I have to say that the present work is just a bit less effective overall compared to its predecessor, forming a slightly less cohesive package. However, this work is infused with a beauty (in particular the lyrical island, see below) and a sense of leave-taking, perhaps nostalgia, which is absent from Pettersson’s work this far. The lyrical island itself is enough to keep me coming back.

According to Jürgen Lange’s page, the Symphony No. 15 was premiered on 19.11.1982 (I am assuming by Comissiona and the SRSO), which means the composer did not live to hear this work. Not surprisingly, this work is in a single movement and lasts around a half hour, depending on tempos (stay tuned for my recording reviews!).

Unfortunately I left my BIS recording of this work in the states, but if I remember correctly the liner notes said something to the effect that much of this score is written piano. I think there was also something which almost made one think that this work is gentle. Similar to the liner notes from the Phono Suecia recording of the Symphony No. 14, I don’t know where the writers got these ideas from. While there might be a greater sense of lyricism in the present work compared to some of its predecessors, this music is Pettersson, and there is a lot of conflict.

The symphony begins with stabbing brass chords, a minor, spiced with white-key dissonances (A-E-F-B-C), accompanied by snare drum (snares off). After the fourth chord the violins come in, with a theme, very syncopated. Pettersson now introduces the key rhythmic gestures of the symphony: “snapping” rhythms of a sixteenth followed by a dotted eighth, two sixteenths followed by an eighth, and cascading runs of four sixteenths followed by an eighth. This last idea is very important. Most of the symphony is in 2/2 time, and Pettersson often divides the measures into eighths: 3+3+2 or 2+3+3. Two of these runs plus an additional four sixteenths fit nicely into this pattern, and Pettersson does this throughout the symphony.

The orchestral texture thins out briefly for a short violin solo, accompanied by pizzicato from lower strings. A solo trumpet plays the theme first heard on the violins at the beginning. The cascading runs return in full strings, both ascending and descending. The stabbing chords return, first in brass, then again in basses and violas. The texture has thinned out again, leaving a mournful passage for strings and woodwinds.

Pettersson kinda noodles around with the ideas introduced thus far for a little while; a fantasia of sorts. The tempo slackens (Tempo II), and broad, syncopated brass chords lead. What follows next is just an absolutely unplayable passage for violins (I’ll talk more about this in the recording reviews!), accelerating back into Tempo I.

Coming back to the original tempo Pettersson brings back the main ideas: cascading runs, this time in the woodwinds, stabbing brass chords, and the theme in the violins. A brief bridging passage in strings, accompanied by woodwinds playing cascading runs, leads to an interlude-like section, led by the theme. An increase in dynamic and another broadening of tempo leads to Tempo III, a bit slower than Tempo II. Here we have a brass-led culmination of the music heard thus far, emphatic, broad, and imposing.

Tempo I returns. Over tremolo strings, a solo horn and bass clarinet play a variation of the theme, rising. Low strings and contrabassoon respond. A very brief horn call, and snapping rhythms in percussion lead us to increasingly frenzied music, all based on the Pettersson’s main materials.

The storm clears to reveal what is probably Pettersson’s most sarcastic and devilish music. Trombones play this vulgar and pompous syncopated rhythm; dominant seventh chords.  The third time around, when we are in DM7 (D-F#-C), Pettersson sticks in an F natural on trumpet and tuba, and you can imagine how clumsy and flabby that sounds (how about the third movement of Schnittke’s Violin Concerto No. 4?).

However, we are soon back into “familiar” Pettersson territory. The music yearns and strains as we move to Tempo III. Trumpets and horns lead here; a call over a vast vista. The tempo picks up, an angular passage for brass leads to another culminating passage, as the tempo broadens again.

Screaming cellos holding a high E transition back to Tempo I, and the theme and stabbing chords return. Pettersson looks backwards a bit and brings back the call heard earlier, this time in tuba and contrabassoon. A brief storm follows, a frenzied mix of the ideas heard thus far.

Now Pettersson takes us to Tempo II, this time marked Cantando. A beautiful passage for strings only follows, in the lyrical island style we know and love from this composer. A broad woodwind line offers a countermelody. Listen for the duple-triplet rhythm in the violas, as this soon will become the impetus for moving the music forward. A short passage for solo violin transitions to Tempo I. A plaintive clarinet melody leads here.

The music builds quickly to an impassioned section led by trumpet, accompanied with a climbing gesture in horns and basses. However, this fades out quickly to somewhat dreamy music. However, the rhythm of the climbing gesture heard a moment earlier now propels the music forward. We get the feeling of a slow climb, which leads to a brass swell which doesn’t really do anywhere.

After a retreat the music builds up again, not quite reaching a climax, but fluttering trumpets do seem to signal that something bigger is coming. The tempo slows down back to Tempo II, and the music now moves broadly, perhaps tragically. Three descending chords are heard in the horns and low brass, leading to a truly cathartic arrival on bb minor, accentuated by tam-tam.

A held Bb on violins leads to the next section, back in Tempo I. Although first violins sing a long melody here and the harmonies move fairly slowly, violas, then second violins, churn out rapid runs, keeping a sense of uneasy forward motion. The runs transition from mostly sixteenths to triplets, accompanied by the entrance of celesta, which alternates between descending and ascending.

A brief viola solo introduces the return of the horn call gesture, this time heard in flutes and celesta.  Horns lead here with a long line, doubled by violas. The music broadens again, arriving at another brass-led section, similar to the moment of catharsis described above. The contrapuntal textures are busier this time around, however.

After slowing down to Tempo III, Pettersson returns to Tempo I with march-like music, played by lower strings accompanied by percussion. Violins begin to intone a long line, but brass quickly enter the march and music wastes no time going into a storm. As the storm becomes increasingly violent, a solo trumpet tries to lead us through, but becomes submerged (listen to the spitting sixteenth note licks from horns and trumpets II and III). An emphatic arrival (Bb-F) signals the end of the storm, and if you listen carefully to the bass instruments, you can hear one of the opening rhythmic gestures.

The following section feels rather disoriented, like trying to regain one’s senses after shellshock. An entrance by low brass (Bb-G) try to ground us. Oboes begin an ascent, leading into quick syncopated brass swell. Unison string chords follow, accelerating. The music returns to tempo I; low brass and trumpets lead, the cascading rhythms return, and upper strings play the opening theme.

Next comes a brief section led by a desperate little rhythm played on snare drum, accented by upper woodwinds. Back to Tempo II, Pettersson now plays around with the meter: the music is still written in 2/2 time, but the strong beats might as well be dotted quarters. Strings and brass stay out of alignment during this passage, but the conflict does not feel particularly strained. The entrance of celeste is accompanied by a lightening of texture.

A very short crescendo leads to a full orchestra outburst, led by trumpet. Tempo I returns along with the cascading runs, led by woodwinds. The trumpet leads again over a downward timpani glissando; the stabbing chords come back, in horns and trombones. The texture quickly thins out, giving way to a reprise of the interlude-like section heard earlier. Brass and percussion return with a march rhythm, accelerating. Strings churn out unison quarter notes while muted trombones spit out this quasi-chromatic falling gesture.

Violins play the opening theme as we come back to Tempo I. Tritones are abundant in the harmonies here, sometimes accentuated with galloping triplets. The stabbing chords return, this time with full brass. A solo trumpet soars again over the landscape, accompanied by trombone. It really feels like we are going someplace different now. The stabbing chords are taken up by the strings.

After the final stabbing chord of this series, violins play four descending chromatic pitches (G#-G-F#-F), spanning the a range over an octave. The F morphs into an E, and we find ourselves very briefly C major, before Pettersson takes us elsewhere. What follows for the next few minutes could be, and I really mean this, the most beautiful music that Pettersson ever wrote.

This section could be described as a lyrical island, perhaps almost serving an analogous function as the one found in the Symphony No. 6. However, while the island found in the earlier work is consoling and comforting; an oasis of peace and beauty after a long struggle, Pettersson now takes us to a place much different. The beauty we find here is searing, soaring, and strained to the breaking point. It is as if we have finally arrived in a place of beauty but we are too exhausted and beaten down to appreciate it.

One of the most memorable ideas here is the simple progression of a C major to and F# major triad. While one can detect a clear tonal foundation to Pettersson’s harmonic language here, the voice leading is extremely chromatic, and the harmonies incessantly sullied with “wrong notes.” I really shouldn’t try to over-describe this section of the symphony; its beauty and power speak for itself, and those of you who are already familiar with this work know what I mean.

The music retreats to piano and the brass are silent, leaving just strings and woodwinds. Shortly after we hear the last C major – F# major progression of this section, violas lead in their lowest register, playing a meandering line, very chromatic. Here I feel that Pettersson is telling us that our time in this place of beauty—however strained—is coming to an end, and we must move on to the remaining conflict. It is heartbreaking.

A sudden interruption of upper woodwinds accompanied by snare drum shakes us out of this reverie. The strings provide the same harmonic foundation and progression as heard at the beginning of this section. The music quickly becomes more agitated and increases in volume, but doesn’t reach a climax. Rather, a lone C is held by the violins, over which we hear a solitary bassoon. Pettersson begins looking backwards, re-introducing ideas heard earlier in the work (think of how Pettersson concludes the Symphony No. 10). Cascading runs, moving downward, are heard in violas and woodwinds.

We next hear a solo trumpet, suggesting a wide open space, almost Copland-esque. The stabbing chords return, this time in the strings. Upper woodwinds play the opening theme. Soon Pettersson is recapitulating all the main ideas heard which have made up this work. During the final push to the finish, Pettersson pulls back the tempo, and the orchestra swells into a massive CM7 chord. The winds and percussion drop out, leaving the strings as they play the final chord of the work: F# major, A# in the bass, in their upper most extreme registers, wailing away.

I find the conclusion to this work to be extraordinarily moving. The way I hear it Pettersson is forcing open the gates to the next world, to the beyond, a place which transcends earthly pain and suffering. However, when the gates are open, the light is so intense and blinding that it is too much to bear, we cannot even look at it. Here I cannot help but think about the conclusion to Vaughan William’s Symphony No. 9 or Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8; composers at the end of their lives, visualizing the beyond, the next world, or whatever, in their music. 

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