Friday, January 28, 2011

Recordings: Seven Sonatas for Two Violins

Seven Sonatas for Two Violins
Duo Gelland (Martin and Cecilia Gelland, Violins)
BIS-CD 1028

Seven Sonatas for Two Violins
Josef Grunfarb, Karl-Ove Mannberg, violins
Caprice CAP21401

I feel completely confident in showering Duo Gelland’s take on this piece with nothing but the highest praise. I cannot imagine a better embodiment of the special sound-world that Pettersson demands in this fascinating work. The endless technical challenges are met impeccably, and the Duo Gelland (DG) tears fearlessly into this music leaving us gasping for breath in a choking cloud of rosin, while at the same time not sounding unnecessarily abrasive. No small feat in this music.

Having said that, in terms of making a convincing musical argument for this work, the DG fall a hair behind their only competition (see below). I agree with Jed Distler’s review that the DG bring out the more extreme aspects of this work, emphasizing the large and sudden contrasts, the glissando and pizzicato effects, and generally employing rapid-ish tempos. In DG’s hands, there is a near constant sense of struggle and conflict.

My first exposure to this work was the recording discussed above, so I must admit that I was quite biased when I first heard this recording. After hearing the DG, what could be better?

Initially, I wasn’t convinced with the Grunfarb/Mannberg (GM) interpretation—it just seemed too “polite” for this piece. However, I was soon convinced that GM’s take was an equally viable alternative, and that they seem to be more concerned with making a musical argument rather than giving us a collection of virtuosic effects.

In GM’s hands the music loses a bit of conflict and struggle (although conflict and struggle are written into the music) but emerges with greater sense of clarity. For example, the opening to the 1st sonata is not played at a tentative, fragile whisper but purposefully. The slower tempo employed at the opening of the 2nd sonata allows allows the music to sound less like nervous skittering but an actual contrapuntal line.

The technically challenges of this work are also met impeccably by GM, although here you might not be left in that…cloud of rosin.

Bottom line--I think DG would make a better first impression on this piece, but GM allows you to hear a different and certainly valid take on this music. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Seven Sonatas for Two Violins (this post is a bit longer!)

I first became familiar with these works relatively recently when I found them in the Helsinki Public Library about two years ago. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing the library copy seems to be lost, so whatever meaningful background I can give about these works will have to come from memory or whatever I can find on the internet.

This work dates from 1951 while Pettersson was studying with Honegger and Leibowitz in Paris. As a string player, I can confidently say that these sonatas are absolutely insane from a technical point of view. The virtuosic demands on the performers are as unrelenting and uncompromising as the music, and these works would also be of interest to anyone who loves some good violin pyrotechnics.

These sonatas occupy an expressive world quite far removed from the Barefoot Songs. Regardless of what is happening musically in the Sonatas, I get a constant sense of conflict; even the lyrical moments seem to be infused with fragility. These works are overflowing with ideas and nervous, jittery energy.

If my memory serves me correctly, the liner notes to the BIS recording talk about how Pettersson develops the “grammar” for his subsequent works in the Sonatas. While I certainly agree, I was surprised at how much the Barefoot Songs informs the Sonatas.

Each individual sonata has a performance time ranging from about 3 to 13 minutes. Most consist of a single movement while the 2nd and 6th are multi-movement affairs. I personally do not hear any melodic or motivic material which ties the individual sonatas together, but I could be wrong.

Some sonatas come across as more successful than others, and I certainly would not recommend listening to the whole cycle in one sitting. But anyway, this post is long enough, so let’s get started…

Sonata No. 1

The 1st sonata is written in one movement and has a performance time of about 13 minutes. This piece begins with a slow, quiet introduction, perhaps a compact version of the slow introductions which begin several of the symphonies. The introduction is based upon a song, played in G minor at the most fragile pianissimo in the violin’s upper register.

The next section begins with a declamatory oration around the notes G, Ab, A, and Bb. Pettersson oscillates obsessively between these notes for a while. This, along with the introductory song, form the core material of the rest of the sonata.

The song makes several reappearances throughout the work. The next appearance, in Bb minor, is played with rich nobility on the G string. The other violin assaults the song with slashing multiple stops. The song holds its ground and continues unfazed. This kind of gesture reappears again throughout the symphonies, where a long melodic line is heard amid the whirling storm of the orchestra.

The song becomes more frantic—embellished with rapid ornamentations and strained glissandi. The other violinist continues its assault of the song. The music continues its conflict-laden pace, but eventually settles down again, where the song makes another appearance, this time in Eb minor. Now the other violin provides an “out-of-tune” accompaniment, droning on an A-D fourth on the lower two strings.

A long upward glissando brings the sonata to a close on G minor.

Sonata No. 2

The compact 2nd sonata consists of three movements and has a performance time of about 7 minutes. The first movement, Allegro con allegrezza, begins with rapid, nervous scurrying building up to a small climax of sorts. The scurrying continues, but starts to stutter. The movement ends abruptly, perhaps even with a bit of dry humor, on a D-G cadence. The second movement, Moderato, picks up where the last one left off, with a repeated Eb-Ab gesture. The nasal open E string begins to assert itself, with increasing insistence. Despite everything that transpires, the open E has the last word. The third movement, Allegro veloce – Ostinato, starts out with rapid-fire passagework, reminiscent of the first movement. The ostinato comes in, a rising figure with fourths followed by a triad (G-C-F-Gb-Bb-Db, I think). I particularly like how the other violin sometimes weaves queasily around the ostinato figure. (Not having the score I don’t know if one violinist constantly has the ostinato figure or if it is traded).

Sonata No. 3

The one-movement 3rd sonata is a bit shorter than the previous, clocking in at about 5 minutes on this recording. If you don’t have perfect pitch and want to train your ear on F#, this sonata is a good place to start. The opening F# is repeated or held in different registers for the first minute and a half. The other violin sneaks in, playing around with the pitches F, F# and D, but also making sure we remember the F#. Next follows a passage which kinda reminds me of Shostakovich. Fragments of songs are heard, but the lyricism is not really sustained. Take notice of the passage beginning at 4’21, especially the ridiculous pyrotechics at 4’29. Unsurprisingly, Pettersson gives the F# the final word.

Sonata No. 4

Similar to the previous sonata, the 4th is in a single movement and has a performance time of about 5 minutes. The piece begins with an ostinato figure around the notes F#, C#, F, G and C. Nervous trills mark the other violinist’s entrance. The ostinato figure continues to anchor the proceedings, even though it stutters and is interrupted. A brief repose is heard in the central section, but soon becomes increasingly agitated and impassioned, leading back to a variation of the opening ostinato. Quiet pizzacati bring the piece to a close.

Sonata No. 5

With the 10 minute, single movement 5th sonata Pettersson presents a more convincing argument compared to the previous two sonatas, which sometimes seem like a lot of noodling around a single pitch or ostinato figure. Here, Pettersson works with a lot of material but ties it all seamlessly together into a cogent argument, where each idea seems to flow inevitably to the next. Particularly interesting is the faux-Viennese/Mahlerian episode in the last quarter of this piece.

Sonata No. 6

The five-movement 6th sonata is perhaps my favorite of the lot. The first movement, Andante, consists of a folk-like tune of almost eastern character with pizzicato accompaniment (anyone know how just two violinists can pull off this passage?). Things get considerably spikier in the 2nd movement, Walzer, with prickly, rapid-fire pizzicati. The third movement, Mesto, is a brief Eb-minor lament where Pettersson plays around with major-minor relationships and perhaps some shades of Mahler. In the 4th movement, Tempo di Waltzer, Pettersson builds this movement around a single pitch played insistently (A) similar to the previous two sonatas, but here much more effectively in my opinion. The final movement, Andante, begins with dark groveling leading to an impassioned folk-like lament, again with major-minor oscillations. The final A which ends the work comes as a bit of a surprise to me (it acts as a V for the next sonata?).

Sonata No. 7

Harmonically speaking, the brief final sonata (one movement, about 3 minutes) picks up where the last one left off with a mournful song played in a pure A minor tonality (I heard D minor initially, but then B naturals come in. Dorian mode?). The opening to me sounds like it could come from a Shostakovich quartet. A flash of Mahler is heard. Before long, we are taken back to more familiar, conflict-laden territory. This sonata pales somewhat in comparison to the others, and the final notes seem like a rather unfulfilling end to the journey.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pettersson på engelska (eller lära dig svenska eller tyska!)

Dear Friends,

Life can be pretty frustrating for a non-Swedish speaking/non-German speaking Pettersson fan. It is painfully clear for those of us who fall into this category that just about all of the serious Pettersson scholarship is published in these languages. Besides the few things here and there on the internet, sometimes the best things we have are the liner notes which come with the CDs.

In today’s post I’m going to talk a little bit about Pettersson scholarship in English, and while I’m at it, I’d like to call your attention to some internet sites which might be of interest.

An excellent (and quite old, actually) resource in English is the Pettersson page by Mark Shanks on Here you’ll find a detailed biography of the composer, as well as reviews of approximately half of the symphonies. This resource was invaluable to me as I was  discovering Pettersson in the late ‘90s.

A new link which I am adding is an article written in 1981 by Peter G. Davis of the New York Times shortly before the US premiere of the 7th Symphony. In this article Davis mentions that the time might be ripe for Pettersson’s discovery in the states (Sergio Comissiona, a champion of Pettersson, was then music director of the Baltimore Symphony), but sadly, 30 years later, this has not happened.

Around the turn of the millennium an American Allan Pettersson society was founded, with the intention of promoting Pettersson’s music in the states as well as translating the available Pettersson scholarship into English. Unfortunately it appears that this society never really got off the ground.

Another new link I am adding is an article written by the American composer and administrator of the Allan Pettersson Enthusiasts Facebook page, Christopher Brakel. One of the goals of this article this was to spark further interest in the composer. Check it out here.

The most serious piece of Pettersson scholarship in English I have been able to find online is Colin Davis’ (not the British conductor, I presume) analysis of the 5th symphony. I have tried to find Mr. Davis' contact info, but I keep on finding the conductor instead. Anna Kwak wrote her DMA thesis "A performer's analysis of Allan Pettersson's Concerto no. 2 for violin and orchestra", which I have not been able to find online. The American musicologist and composer Allen Gimbel wrote a very nice (but incomplete) essay “Allan Pettersson as a Topic for Disability Studies in Music” which I saved the moment I found it on the internet. I have not been able to find it online recently, so unfortunately I cannot provide a link to it.

In case you have not guessed, I hope to develop this blog into an additional English-language resource for Pettersson enthusiasts, and I have a few other things I’m brewing right now in addition to talking about pieces and reviewing recordings. Stay tuned—if everything works out there will be much more to come.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Box o' joy

The new Swedish royal couple must be
very pleased that I purchased this set.

I think most of you will agree with me here, but the word “joy” is very rarely mentioned in the same sentence as Pettersson. Nevertheless, I hope you don’t mind me sticking in my brand of sarcasm or clumsy attempts at humor here.

Ever since I became a Pettersson fan in the late 90’s I have been steadily accumulating the CPO discs one by one. Up until recently I had about 60% of the discs, with access to the rest of them through the library.

As many of you know, CPO released a box set of the complete symphonies fairly recently. A few weeks ago, I was checking out the CPO website and noticed that this set was on sale for approximately 50€, which is an absolute steal, considering how there are 12 discs.

Although us Pettersson fans owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to CPO for seeing this project through, I’m going to use this space to air a few small complaints. This is the first CPO box set I have purchased, but I have read elsewhere (maybe seen as well) that CPO typically just takes the individual CD releases and puts them in a box. If you look at the timings of the individual discs, the whole lot could probably be squeezed onto 11 CDs, maybe 10, if the pieces were properly rearranged.

Paper sleeves rather than jewel cases?
You can also see from the photos that a much smaller box could have been used if each CD were packaged in a paper slip rather than an individual jewel case. Further space could be saved if just one booklet were included, rather than 12. In each booklet, the introductory section on Pettersson is essentially the same, so now I have 12 copies of the same text (in three languages too!). It would have also been nice if some new essays were commissioned for the occasion.

I realize that some record companies do the opposite: once all the individual recordings have been completed for a box set, everything else is stripped away except for the music. That means reduced liner notes, omitted librettos, etc…

Some CDs have a bit of extra space on them.
Anyway, these are small quibbles. 50€ is a small price to pay for enlightenment (that was sarcasm), regardless of the packaging. I am sure that most of the die-hard Pettersson fans already acquired all the CPO discs before this box set came out, but at this price, this set is essential for anyone looking to fill out their Pettersson collection--or for those who seek enlightenment.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Recordings: Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra

Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Stig Westerberg, conductor
Caprice CAP21369

Deutsch Kammerakademie Neuss
Johannes Goritzki, conductor
CPO 999225

Musica Vitae
Petter Sundkvist, conductor
Caprice CAP21739

Nordic Chamber Orchestra
Christian Lindberg, conductor

This work, by no means a Pettersson crowd-pleaser (if there is such a thing), has been very generously represented on disc. Given the fact that it is unlikely for most of us to be at the right place at the right time on the rare occasion that this work is performed, it is nice to have multiple recorded versions to listen to.

In Michael Kube’s very informative liner notes accompanying the BIS release, Pettersson said that this work should be played from the following perspective: “Expression, great urgency, wildly alternating and striking rhythms take precedence over accuracy of intonation in a dense mass of sonority. So do not reduce the tempo in order to get the details pedantically correct.” This statement very succinctly summarizes the criteria with which I will assess the recordings in this entry.

To play this work as Pettersson intended there is a balancing act between achieving the intensity and sandpaper-like abrasiveness that this music quite often requires, while at the same time bringing out the relevant contrapuntal and rhythmic details. Then of course there is the “dense mass of sonority” that Pettersson requested, which can put the chamber orchestras at a disadvantage to the larger string sections of the Swedish RSO.

Of course comparing recordings is a subjective matter, and for me I think the Swedish RSO comes out on top, although the other two Swedish bands are just as good, if not better in some ways. I think the SRSO achieves essentially what Pettersson wanted: a dense mass of sound, fleet tempos, and, well, some inaccuracies of intonation. This is not to say that the SRSO strings play out of tune, I think it’s just a matter of the increased difficulty of getting larger string sections to play with tight intonation and ensemble when compared to chamber bands. Perhaps the fact that this recording is old helps a bit in terms of achieving an abrasive sound, but I think it is more of a function of having more players just digging in and kicking up a big cloud of rosin.

The other two Swedish bands come in a close second to the SRSO, although I prefer Sundkvist just a hair more than Lindberg in terms of the intensity of performance. I have to admit being surprised (although definitely pleased) when I heard a few years ago that Lindberg was going to finish up the BIS series—from what I know of Lindberg he is a flamboyant and life-loving stage presence, which kinda seems at odds with Pettersson. So when I heard Lindberg’s take on this music I was not surprised at the result. Rather than engaging with the harsh and dark aspects of this work, to my ears Lindberg emphasizes clarity and dynamic range. The NCO also plays with an incredible oneness of ensemble and intonation. While this is probably the best performance of the lot, it might not be the most convincing. For example, at the end of the work, rather than feeling like we’ve entered this world of darkness, Lindberg’s take sounds rather noble. Sundkvist, on the other hand, sacrifices (perhaps unintentionally?) a bit of Lindberg’s qualities of clarity and intonation but brings a fuller sound and does not shy away from the music’s dark and abrasive tendencies. 

While CPO has unquestionably made a huge contribution to the Pettersson discography, this particular recording just doesn’t cut it when compared to the rest of the competition. All the other bands perform this work in about 20 minutes; Goritzki adds about 3-4 minutes. As a result, the music plods a bit. However, at these tempos and with the chamber forces employed, there is definitely a sense of clarity, allowing Pettersson’s dense countrapuntal lines to register. In sum, I feel that this performance does go a bit against what Pettersson wanted, and with the other options mentioned above, I think fans of this work can pass this recording and still be spoiled for choice.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Don't Mes(s)to with the program!

I hope you can forgive me for talking about other Pettersson-related things on this blog.

One of the ways I wear my music-nerd stripes is to obsessively check the websites of major orchestras and ensembles during the months of January to May, which is when the new season programs are announced. Now that I live in Helsinki, I pay particularly close attention to the nearby Swedish orchestras, looking out for any performance of Pettersson’s orchestral works.

I was both excited and a little disappointed when I saw the 10-11 season announcement of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (SRSO). It said that in April 2011 Daniel Harding will conduct the massive Mesto from Pettersson’s Concerto No. 3 for String Orchestra. I was excited that it was a Pettersson orchestral work besides the 7th Symphony, but disappointed that he wasn’t performing the whole piece. Nevertheless, beggars cannot be choosy: if you hear the 7th live, consider yourself lucky. If you hear an orchestral work besides the 7th live, consider yourself even luckier.

It was a pretty good sign that this performance was actually going to take place when Gehrman’s posted it on their website as well. However, as one can never be sure with these things (I’ll say more about this below), I continued to check both the webpages of the SRSO and Daniel Harding.

If you go to the SRSO site you will see that the Mesto is NOT on the program (Daniel Harding's webpage doesn't have any information on April 2011 yet). Of course, there may be many possible reasons why this change occurred, but the cynical and probably correct reason is some higher-up involved in programming said something like: “You know, this Pettersson-stuff probably won’t sell too many tickets, so let’s program something else that people have heard a million times already.”

This Pettersson denial is actually the third one I can think of in recent memory. Maybe about a year and a half ago, Christian Lindberg announced on his website that he would conduct the 2nd Symphony with the Norrlands (Umea) Opera orchestra in April 2010. However, as I did not see anything about it on Gehrman’s page, I obsessively checked the Norrlands Opera webpage until they announced the Spring 2010 program, which said nothing about any Pettersson performance.

Closer to Helsinki, the Mikkeli city orchestra was scheduled to perform the Concerto No. 2 for String Orchestra this past fall. The performance was also announced on Gehrman’s site. However, at the time the Mikkeli orchestra website was undergoing a painfully slow update, so to speed things up I found the conductor on Facebook and asked him to confirm. He said that he would be playing something else.This is actually forgivable, as I must sheepishly admit that I missed a performance of this piece in Mikkeli by the same forces about a year and a half ago.

Probably the biggest Pettersson denial happened to the man himself. As you may know, for a period of time Pettersson banned the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (RSPO) from performing his music. If my facts are correct, this was in response to the RSPO yanking the 7th Symphony from their overseas tour. When I think about this I wonder if the 7th Symphony would be more of a repertoire item today if the tour program had not been changed, and other audiences had been exposed to this work. On the other hand, I wonder if Pettersson developed some bad blood with the programming establishment in Sweden because of his response. Perhaps if he had been more chill about it and didn’t ban the RSPO from playing his music, he might have actually had more performances and a better chance of establishing his works in the repertoire.

The fact that you’re here reading this blog probably means that you’re interested in classical music beyond Pachabel’s Canon and Mozart’s Eine kleine. Like myself, you probably also have a laundry list of composers who you feel are unjustly neglected, and Pettersson is just one of them. For people like us, looking at the schedules of our local orchestras is usually disappointing, and we have resigned ourselves to the world of recordings to hear these neglected composers.

It’s fascinating to think about what forces are involved in determining which work enters the repertory and which work will languish in obscurity. We know that many works throughout history were booed and dismissed at their premiere only to become repertoire staples years later. The converse is also true. Probably the most famous example is Mahler, who met resistance while he was alive but said his “day will come.” I know this is total cliché, but maybe Pettersson’s day will come as well.

In the meantime, let’s hope that future programs featuring Pettersson’s music are not Mes(s)to(ed) with.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra (1949-1950)

On this entry, I’ll be focusing on Pettersson’s first work for large ensemble, his Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra. Fans of Pettersson the symphonist will find themselves in more familiar territory here compared to the Barefoot Songs. Some of our favorite Pettersson fingerprints are found in abundance here: repetition, insistent use of just a handful of intervals, extremes of dynamics and register, virtuosic demands of the musicians involved, conflict and tension. What a difference a few years makes!

Pettersson wrote his Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra during the years 1949-1950. At this point he had about a decade of performing experience as a section violist in the now Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as composition studies with (correct me if I’m wrong here) Blomdahl and Olsson in Stockholm. The first performance of this approximately 20-minute work took place on 6 April 1952, with Tor Mann leading the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. One of the reviewers of this performance, Teddy Nyblom, said something to the effect that the only solution to Pettersson’s dilemma (artistic dilemma?) was to stop composing. Ouch.

The work is divided into three movements: I. Allegro – II. Andante – III. Largamente-Allegro, with the first two movements played attaca. I hope you like your fourths and fifths, cause that’s what you’re getting in this piece, and you’re going to get a lot of them. Immediately from the outset Pettersson establishes his uncompromising stance. The work opens up with stabbing repeated notes from the violas, with a strong rhythmic profile (as I don’t have the score, I’ll be making guesses as to which instruments play what). The upper strings play angular fifths and fourths, along with a repeated sighing motive of falling minor seconds. Depending on how this opening gambit is played (I’ll get to that in the recording reviews), the word abrasive comes to mind. Ghostly passages for unison strings and solo cadenzas are peppered throughout the landscape. After the lower strings play a gruff, rosiny recap of the opening fourth and fifth motive, Psycho-like slashing clusters in the upper strings, followed by equally emphatic unison Es (E natural, not E-flat!) start the transition to the 2nd movement.

The 2nd movement, though less frenetic in feel, has a feeling of latent, slow-burning tension. This movement opens up with a G – D motive which is then repeated obsessively. Insistent repeated Ds move the music forward and tighten the thumbscrews until a low C# is reached. Solo strings enter, soon returning to full strings. The G – D motive comes back. A weird, expansive, quasi-Mahlerian, almost maudlin passage in C#/D-flat major tonality arrives, followed by the G – D motive again. The movement closes with a strained, but beautiful transition from F# major to F# minor.

The 3rd movement opens with a brief exploration of fourths at broad tempo, soon moving into music similar in feel and pace of the 1st movement. Out of nowhere, cheeky, queasy music is heard, before going back to the good ol’ fourths. The music broadens, with the lower strings following the upper strings canonically and separated by a minor ninth. The music becomes more insistent and desperate. A solo violin cadenza is played. The lower strings burrow their way forcefully to the depths, while the violins play some absolutely ridiculous acrobatics in a stratospheric register. While the lower strings keep the music anchored in the depths, the upper strings play this ghosty, shadowy figure in their upper registers, foreshadowing the conclusion of the work. This figure returns in the final bars, played with dark eloquence on the violin’s lowest register over an E-flat minor tonality. Although Pettersson plays with major-minor here (for example the G and C naturals), there is no escaping the darkness. The piece ends with a final E-flat minor chord.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Recordings: Barefoot Songs

Barefoot Songs
Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano
Cord Garben, piano
CPO 999 499-2

Although I will be reviewing a total of four recordings of this work here, this recording is the only one in which the original vocal-piano version is featured. As I will not be able to compare apples to apples, I’m not sure how much I’ll have to say about this one.

Not being a singer I am not entirely sure how much of a challenge these songs present for the soloist, but Monica Groop is a more than capable singer, and she seems quite comfortable and confident in this idiom. The pianist, however, faces very few technical challenges in this work and sometimes it seems to me as if Cord Garben is just sightreading his way through the recording. Perhaps the piano part does not demand any more assertiveness, and Mr. Garben is simply ensuring that the vocal line maintains prominence.

A few of the songs have been transposed, presumably to accommodate Ms. Groop’s vocal range, so for those of you out there with perfect pitch (like me) and the score in hand, you will find some songs just a little off-putting.

Apologies for this short review. I have a few more things to say about the recordings below, but I’ll admit I’m a little antsy to get to the meat-and-potatoes orchestral works.

8 Barefoot Songs (arr. Antal Doráti)
Nordic Chamber Orchestra
Anders Larsson, baritone
Christian Lindberg, conductor

After the phenomenally successful premiere of Pettersson’s 7th Symphony, Antal Doráti, then music director of the Stockholm Philharmonic, approached the composer with the idea that he orchestrate and arrange into a suite some of his Barefoot Songs. The composer declined, preferring instead to work on his 8th Symphony. Doráti, a composer himself, took up the task of preparing the orchestral suite discussed here.

Doráti apparently wasn’t interested in just orchestrating these songs, but in beefing them up a bit. Sometimes he repeats a simple gesture in succession, usually in a different orchestral guise and/or canonically. Doráti occasionally adds new contrapuntal lines, busying up the spare accompaniments found in the original. He was clearly a skilled orchestrator (perhaps even better than Pettersson???), but his shifting of orchestral colors and instrumental groups within vocal phrases can feel distracting. In the last song of the suite, En spelekarls himlafärd (A minstrel’s skyride, song number 11 in the original), Dorati nearly doubles the performance time of the original. He does add some  appropriate effects, given the song’s subject matter, such as the initial “tuning up” of the strings and the harmonics later on. However, I do find the orchestral flourish after the last vocal phrase rather ridiculous.

I personally do not find these arrangements to be entirely convincing. As you might have guessed, orchestrationally, they really do not sound like Pettersson. To give a vague example, Pettersson was not averse to using soft tam-tam strokes in his symphonies, but the way they are used throughout the suite just sounds out of place to me. I do realize that this is not an entirely fair argument, since the Barefoot Songs do not sound like mature Pettersson, so why would Doráti’s arrangement sound like Pettersson’s mature orchestrational style?

I think the premise of the Barefoot Songs is to present the rather heavy subject matter of Pettersson’s roots under the guise of musically simple vocal-piano music. To me, these arrangements give the impression of trying to make this music more than it is. I really wonder what these songs would sound like if Pettersson himself orchestrated them, but of course we will never know.

Having said all this, I am still grateful that this early work of Pettersson has found another avenue for performance. In fact, you can catch the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic playing this arrangement in spring 2011.

Suite from the Barefoot Songs (arr. E. Hemberg)
Stockholm University Chorus
Eskill Hemberg, conductor
Caprice CAP21359

Without access to the program notes (this release is available from the Naxos Music Library), I am not in a position to discuss the backstory of this arrangement. Compared to the Doráti suite, I find this choral suite from the Barefoot Songs to be far more effective, as they more closely capture (and in my opinion, enhance) the spirit and feel of the original. Overall, these choral arrangements follow the original score more literally, although some adjustments are made to registers.

I think this suite is a more viable alternative to the orchestral version discussed above. For example, the beautiful simplicity of Herren går på ängen is wonderfully captured in the choral arrangement; no embellishments are added. In Vännen i söndagslandet (The friend in Sundayland, song number 22 in the original), the piano accompaniment becomes this mystical, but rather distant humming (or vocalise? Not sure) while a solo soprano takes up the original vocal line. Or listen to the cheeky “na-na-na-na” of the male voices as they take up the piano left hand line in Du lögnar (You lie, song number 13 in the original).

Barefoot Songs, excerpts
Musica Vitae
Olle Persson, baritone
Petter Sundkvist, conductor
Caprice CAP21739

If I ever found myself in the situation where I had to choose my desert-island arrangement of the Barefoot Songs, this one would be it. This arrangement, even more so than the choral version described above, best captures the essence and character of these songs. Again, as I am listening to this version from the Naxos Music Library, I do not have access to the liner notes, so I can’t talk about the backstory or the arranger.

The orchestra employed here is a small strings-only band, and the transcriptions from the original are quite literal. The arrangements are done tastefully—full strings, solo strings, and pizzicato are used when musically appropriate. Occasionally the chordal textures are thickened up or violins moved to an upper register, adding emphasis for repeated phrases. The “tuning up” intro of the strings in En spelekarls himlafärd found in Doráti’s arrangement is also found here, making me wonder who came up with the idea first.

11 songs of the 24 are part of this arrangement. Baritone Olle Persson sings these selections with great care and sensitivity. I admit that I do not plan to come back to the Barefoot Songs often, but when I do, it will most likely be to this arrangement.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

24 Barefoot Songs (1943 - 1945)

I’m going to begin this survey of Pettersson’s orchestral works with his Barefoot Songs, a series of 24 songs for voice and piano. Although it may seem strange to include this work in a survey of orchestral music, Pettersson comes back to these songs in later works as a source of stylistic or melodic material. Additionally, some of the harmonic devices which are employed also show up in subsequent works.

It wasn’t long after becoming acquainted with Pettersson’s music that I learned about his Barefoot Songs. One day in the late 90’s I saw the CPO recording of these songs in my local record store and, being a subscriber to the Pettersson faith, I purchased it immediately. I have to admit that after listening through the songs a couple of times I have very rarely returned to them, so this reassessment comes after an almost 10-year hiatus.

Two things: first of all, I have never really been a fan of vocal music. I have ignored even the large oeuvres of vocal music by my favorite composers, such as Britten and Barber. Second, I am not really a literature and poetry guy, so I won’t attempt to come up with any profound interpretations of the Pettersson’s words. This issue is further compounded with issues of translation.

Pettersson wrote these songs in 1943-1945 while still employed as a section violist in what is now the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Anyone looking for the Allan Pettersson of the symphonies will probably be surprised upon hearing these songs. With the exception of direct song references in some of his later orchestral works, these songs bear little surface resemblance to the conflict-laden and vast, emotionally intense musical landscapes which were to come later.

Pettersson himself wrote the poetry for these songs, which are largely autobiographical. He wrote over 100 poems which he intended to set to music, although only 24 poems ended up as songs. These poems are apparently cryptic to even native speakers of Swedish, although I certainly would not know for sure. In the songs one can find references to Pettersson’s difficult childhood, such as his mother’s piety and his father’s alcoholism.  

The songs are quite simple musically, almost folk-like, and do not demand much technically from the performers. The songs are quite short (usually 3 minutes or less), and the entire cycle can be played in about 50 minutes. Despite the surface simplicity, the songs are a critical puzzle piece in Pettersson’s development as a composer, as he himself said that in his music he tried to find “the song once sung by the soul.” Short songs probably served as the ideal expressive medium for a busy professional violist, while also giving him the chance to develop his then nascent compositional voice.

For the most part there is a uniform feel among the songs, without any obvious extremes of dynamics, expression or tempi. The sensitive piano accompaniments are spare and usually defer to the vocalist. The vocal lines are restrained rather than declamatory. Harmonically, Pettersson plays around with major-minor relationships and chromatic voice leading within clear tonal contexts.

There is a fragile beauty to most of the songs, although now and then one encounters songs which sound rather cheeky and ironic. I find song number 7, Blomma säj (Tell, Flower) and number 14, Herren går på ängen (The Lord goes in the meadow), to be particularly beautiful. I want to say there’s also a feeling of somewhat detached nostalgia, which seems kinda self-contradictory.

Even though I cannot say I plan to come back to these songs often, listening to them after a long hiatus has really increased my appreciation for the role that these songs played in Pettersson’s development as a composer. Throughout his later works, one can find painfully beautiful oases of pure consonant lyricism (for example in the 7th Symphony) or a long melodic line (perhaps assaulted by the orchestra around it). These fingerprints of Pettersson’s style can be found in these early songs.

Next post I’ll discuss four different recordings of the Barefoot Songs, each in a different arrangement.


Dear friends, music lovers, and Pettersson fans,

For all of the dozen or so (well, maybe a little more) Allan Pettersson fans on this planet, we know that in 2011 this great 20th century Swedish symphonist celebrates his 100th birthday. Hopefully Pettersson’s centennial will provide the impetus for conductors and orchestras to program his works, but in my opinion at least, I’m not terribly optimistic. Nevertheless, to honor Pettersson’s big 100, my goal is to listen to all of his orchestral works, as well as the Barefoot Songs and Seven Sonatas for two violins, and to blog about it. Although there is still a while to go, I have decided to give myself sufficient time to make it through this project without completely sacrificing my mental health (if you are familiar with Pettersson’s music you know what I mean). 

The plan is this: I will listen to each work in the order Pettersson wrote them. Sources of recordings include my personal collection, the local libraries, and the online Naxos Music Library. If multiple recordings or versions of the work in question exist, I will compare them and include that in the blog as well. I am currently trying to procure the scores for all of the works I plan to listen to, but despite my seemingly great resources (Helsinki University and Sibelius Academy libraries), the only scores I have readily available here are the Barefoot Songs and the Seventh Symphony. In my parent’s home back in the States I have the scores for Symphonies 5-8, but that isn’t much help to me now! Each work/recording will be listened to multiple times. My thoughts, feelings and reactions to each piece will then show up here. I will also try to give a fairly detailed description, in a hopefully not too pedantic manner, of the musical argument(s) presented in each piece. 

A few other things worth mentioning: my musical training is sorely lacking in theory, musicology, or analysis. Therefore I will keep technical discussions of the music to a minimum, although it will pop up every now and then. If you’re curious to know more about Pettersson, or about me, check out the other sections on this page. In the links section you can find some other hopefully informative webpages.
Finally, I encourage everyone to leave comments or feedback! I know that there are Pettersson fans out there who know this music better than I do and can speak more eloquently about it. Please share your thoughts! For those of you who haven’t heard Pettersson’s music and are curious, I accept no responsibility should the usage of antidepressants be required after listening…

The Barefoot Songs begins the journey, and will be the subject of my next entry. Talk to you then!