Thursday, September 27, 2012

Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1979) for Viola and Orchestra
Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Nobuko Imai, viola
Lev Markiz, conductor

For those of you who are orchestral musicians you most likely know that the viola is the butt of countless jokes. If I may put forth my biased opinion, as much as I like the viola, when a viola player is incompetent it is more painful to listen to compared to an equally unqualified violinist or cellist.

Having said that, if I was not a cellist I probably would have become a violist. There is something about its tone, its understated presence, its rich and dark lower register, which I find appealing. In fact, one of the first compositions that I wrote which I am willing to show anybody was a piece for solo viola. 

Which brings me to what I thought would be the last work of this project, the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Now that there is a performing version of the Symphony No. 1, I will probably get around to that piece as well. Pettersson left behind many sketches and papers at his death, including sketches for what would have been the Symphony No. 17. The Pettersson scholar, composer and conductor Peter Ruzicka discovered the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra among these sketches; even the composer’s widow did not know of its existence. The premiere took place in fall 1988 (anyone have an exact date?) with Sergui Comissiona conducting the RSO-Berlin (is this correct?) with Yuri Bashmet as the soloist. 

I cannot remember where I read that this work has been deemed incomplete, because Pettersson wanted to add more percussion to the score. This makes perfect sense, as the percussion which is in the current version is extremely minimal; it almost seems like Pettersson was just getting started with the percussion writing and the percussion which he managed to write down simply served as placeholders for any future percussion. Although there are many densely scored sections, which do a good job of drowning out the soloist, the work feels skeletal overall; whether or not Pettersson had more in mind we will never know. 

There is a certain elusive poignancy to this work. Pettersson touches upon feelings of tragedy, loss, leave-taking, anguish, and maybe a bit of defiance, but to me none of these feelings are allowed to be fully expressed. It is as if Pettersson didn’t want to tempt fate and write down his final musical thoughts, because he was certainly hoping to write more.

The only introduction we get is a low held C. The soloist essentially enters the work immediately with a leap of three octaves, broken up into four pitches (C-C-C-Db). The material which Pettersson works with is very chromatic—the lines often feature neighbor pitches separated registrally, such as leaps of minor ninths or major sevenths. Pettersson soon introduces a repeated-note idea in the soloist; the orchestral accompaniment feels broad but also held back, straining. The violist seems to fit into the middle register of the orchestra, which tends to make the soloist fight to be heard. 

After some crazy angular bassoon writing the soloist plays a fantasia on the repeated note gesture. Variations on the opening orchestral bass line keep the music anchored. The orchestra backs off briefly, leaving the soloist accompanied by brass. The solo line now works its way upwards, more or less chromatically. A brief reprise of the opening viola lick is followed by triplet repeated notes from the brass. 

The music briefly becomes dance-like, pushing forward. The repeated triplets return. You may notice the viola intoning a theme filling the space between F and C# (or a major third). A definite sense of strained forward movement is heard, listen to the violins with their dropping octave ideas. Finally, the music pulls through to a series of three beautiful, ascending brass chords; a real sense of tragedy, like this is the end (listen to the abovementioned theme here). However, Pettersson just moves right on; no wallowing here. 

The music rebuilds in intensity, the repeated note motive is intoned forcefully, dissonantly by the brass. However, the music just stops, and the soloist begins again, reprising the opening material. The soloist becomes progressively drowned in the texture. Listen to the octave-drop motives in strings and woodwinds as we arrive again to the series of beautiful, ascending brass chords. Listen to the heartbreaking transition to a minor and the beautiful contribution from the clarinet. 

A calmer section follows; the viola sounding tentative and exploring. Repeated notes in the strings accompany the soloist. A falling, sighing gesture soon takes over the landscape. The music reaches a brass-led climax of sorts which is aborted. Galloping strings now accompany the soloist, as the music continues on its somewhat uncertain path. The snare drum makes its only entrance in the score; a minimal contribution by Pettersson standards. A new rhythmic gesture takes over the orchestra. The viola line sort of fades away to a low C, leaving behind a solo flute. 

The viola starts up again, with fragments from the opening gesture. A beautiful arrival point is reached, similar to what we have heard after the beautiful ascending brass chords. The soloist leads us to a beautiful major chord, followed by what could be a “lyrical island” in the work. As Pettersson moves the music away, we seem to enter into an anguished, chaotic climax, but Pettersson cuts this off quickly, leaving a solo flute. 

As brass increasingly dominate the following section, the soloist fights to be heard. When the music calms down, Pettersson gives us a minimal contribution from timpani; the music feels like it is building up to something. The music increases in intensity, but does not go over the edge. A decrease in intensity follows, until the orchestra arrives on a low Db, waiting to arrive back to C. 

The soloist plays the opening gesture again, almost a brief accompanied cadenza. The solo line becomes overtly virtuosic, that is, the virtuosity is not hidden by the orchestra. The music makes a clear upward push, but again Pettersson cuts us off, leaving a minor triads played by woodwinds. 

The viola plays on, somewhat mournfully, accompanied sparely by flutes and pizzicato strings. The soloist tries to push us to the light, leading to two beautiful, almost Brucknerian brass chords (FMaj7-EMaj) but Pettersson gives us no time to enjoy this. Strained, anguished string clusters follow, while woodwinds lead. We get one more Brucknerian chord, which wants to resolve, but does not.  

A short viola cadenza follows. The music seems to take on a sense of culmination, like a destination is finally in sight. Pettersson takes us to the edge, but does not go over. He takes us to the foot of another mountain and begins climbing again, but this time, we are not taken to the peak. Brucknerian heights are again hinted at, but left unfulfilled. Strings drift upwards, fading away.

The opening of the piece is recapitulated, sort of. Pettersson then takes us upwards, almost monophonically, up to a high C#, meandering through several pitches but not quite giving us a tone row. The final C# is ambiguous to me—not quite the blinding light of the next world like that found at the end of the Symphony No. 15, but not one of defiance either. Pettersson leaves us without a real resolution here.
As far as I know of there is no competition to the BIS recording, in fact, I would guess that the only times this work has been performed is this recording and the premiere performance(s). Like every installment in BIS’ Pettersson series, everyone involved here does a more than adequate job. Nobuko Imai is an able and committed soloist, and Lev Markiz sounds at home in Pettersson’s idiom. The Malmö SO seems to have no problems with the music.


  1. The exact date of the premiere was 1 September 1988, according to

  2. The premiere was September 24, 1988 (Yuri Bashmet, RSO Berlin, Sergiu Comissiona). The Concerto for Viola and Orchestra was also played in 1994 (October 13, 15, 18, 19 and 23) by the violist Vladimir Mendelssohn with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie conducted by Michail Jurowski.