Saturday, April 30, 2011


Dear Readers,

One of the favorite pastimes for Helsinki folk, particularly for students and young travelers, is to take the ferry, or "booze-cruise," or "love boat" (one usually leads to the other) to Stockholm. Now that I live in Helsinki and Stockholm is so close by, and is Pettersson's home, it seems only appropriate that I make the pilgrimage to the great master's home city. 

Pettersson grew up in a section of Stockholm called Södermalm, which was a slum during Pettersson's childhood but seems to be quite the hip neighborhood today. A lot can happen to a city in 100 years--in fact, just look at what has happened to East Berlin in the past 20 years!

Apologies if this entry looks a bit cluttered. Blogger is not a easy place to manipulate pictures!

Segerstam conducts Pettersson Seven in May!

Corner of Skånegatan and Nytorget.

From what I read, Pettersson's childhood home was on Skånegatan 87, facing the public square called Nytorget. 


On this beautiful day, many people were out on Nytorget enjoying the sun.

Skånegatan 87.

Pettersson's family lived in the cellar level of Skånegatan 87. I wonder if those windows used to have bars over them, and if the nice café terrace is outside the master's very boyhood home?

Pettersson apparently lived on a street called Åsögatan, but I have no more information beyond that.

Looking east on Åsögatan.
Looking west on Bastugatan.

Towards the end of his life Pettersson moved into a house on Bastugatan 30, which was a great improvement over his previous living conditions. On the eastern end of this street is a rather steep hill, which I doubt Pettersson could have managed on his own.



Bastugatan 30.

Bastugatan 30 is fenced off, and there is no indication anywhere nearby that this is the location where Pettersson lived. 


Standing on the rocks and placing my camera over the fence, I got a picture of the house which is presumably where Pettersson lived.


Behind Bastugatan 30 is a beautiful view of the city.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bättre än ingenting...

I was really hoping to give this post a title something like: "Dude, the Dude conducts Pettersson!!!" The "Dude," by the way, is Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra. People seem to always forget that he has this orchestra as well; they only talk about his LA and Simon Bolivar gigs. Anyhow...

On 28 April 2011 the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra announced their 2011-2012 season, and I am pleased to say that Pettersson did make it onto the schedule. However, if you were guessing that it would be either the Barefoot Songs or the Symphony No. 7, you guessed correctly! You can check it out here

As it appears that, for some people at least, Pettersson is only about the two works mentioned above, Göteborg probably won't hear any more Pettersson for a while after next year, as the Symphony No. 7 was recently performed, in May 2010.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Kom igen nu!!!

Apologies if this is a bit of a rant. 

I suppose if there were going to be more Pettersson performances besides the ones I knew about already, they would have been on Gehrman's webpage first. 

Today, 27 April 2011, both the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (SRSO) and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (RSPO) announced their 2011-2012 concert seasons, and I am greatly disappointed (but not entirely surprised) to tell you that both concert seasons are 100% Pettersson-free. I suppose I can forgive both ensembles, as the Swedish Radio Choir performed the choral arrangement of the Barefoot Songs (although the SRSO scrapped a performance of the Mesto) and the RSPO will perform both the Symphony No. 7 and the Doráti version of the Barefoot Songs in the next few weeks. Nevertheless, I find it shameful that these two ensembles, who have collectively premiered most of Pettersson's orchestral works, feel that they have sufficiently acknowledged the 100th birthday of their own country's foremost symphonist. Could you imagine if this year's 100th anniversary of Mahler's death were to be acknowledged only with a performance of his Symphony No. 1 in Vienna with the Wiener Philharmoniker? I think not. 

Yes, I know I'm biased, and I also know that there are other factors at play (like getting butts-in-seats). It goes without saying that Pettersson is just one of many composers who have seen a major anniversary pass with only the slightest of acknowledgements. An equally shameful example would be the case of Samuel Barber, one of my favorite composers, whose 100th birthday went practically unnoticed in the states last year. I mean, this is the guy who wrote the Adagio for Strings, surely one of the most performed pieces written in the 20th century. In fact, not a single major American orchestra, unless you include the Austin Symphony, dedicated a single program to his music, which I don't think is much to ask considering how accessible most of his music is. Ok, well the Detroit Symphony did play several of his important works last year. Ironically, an all-Barber program was performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and even the Sibelius Academy here in Helsinki put on an all-Barber concert of his vocal music. 

I am sure that most of you are familiar with this, but once your tastes in classical music develop beyond the top 100 works, hearing your favorite music in concert can be terribly frustrating. 

Enough about this. For the remaining major Swedish orchestras, it comes down to Malmö, Göteborg (new season announcement tomorrow, 28 April 2011!), and Norrköping. I would be extremely surprised if Norrköping did more than the Symphony No. 6, of which I am already eternally grateful. 

Kom igen nu!!!

Recordings: Symphony No. 6

Symphony No. 6
Norrköping Symphony Orchester
Okko Kamu, conductor
CBS Masterworks 76553

Symphony No. 6
Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin
Manfred Trojahn, conductor
CPO 999 124-2 

To be honest, as dear as this music is to me I’m actually kinda happy that after this post I’ll be moving on to the next symphony. Over the past few weeks I have been listening to this piece with a frequency which defines the word “unhealthy”, and lately I’ve put solo Bach on my iPod in an attempt to purify my musical mind. One of the most unsettling and disturbing experiences of my entire life listening to classical music is having a sleepless night with Pettersson’s Symphony No. 6 running incessantly through my mind. Well, the first time I heard Shosty’s Symphony No. 14 in concert comes in a close second place.

Anyway, this is a recording review, so let’s get to it. The only currently commercially available recording of this incredible work is on CPO, with Manfred Trojahn conducting the Deutsches-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin. I don’t mean to be dismissive of this important CD, but given the competition, the merits of this recording can be summed up pretty quickly:

1. Better recorded sound.
2. Technically speaking, the DSO Berlin plays generally better, although this might have to do with the slower tempo (see below).

This takes us to the other recording of this review, with Okko Kamu and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, on a long-gone CBS LP. This recording was taken from a live performance of the work and it is on almost every count superior to the CPO, with the exceptions mentioned above. If you do a little internet research there should be copies floating around; I found mine on eBay over 10 years ago. I think someone even digitized it and posted it online…

The first time I heard the Kamu, after having owned Trojahn’s recording for at least a year, was a revelation. One of the most obvious differences is tempo. In the score, Pettersson indicates a performance time of 54-56 minutes. Kamu is spot-on, around 53:30, while Trojahn takes over 60. This makes a huge difference in the relentless, conflict-laden first half, where the music should feel like a frantic, desperate ride. At Trojahn’s tempo the sense of conflict is still there (it’s written into the music, after all), but you are not left gasping for breath waiting for, and dreading, the next wave of pain.

Then there is the orchestra. Yes, the NSO’s playing, particularly the violins, is quite a bit scrappier than the DSO Berlin. Then again, at Kamu’s tempo there is a sense of holding on for dear life, and technical perfection might actually take away from that feeling. I have to—no—I must give special mention to the horns here. Pettersson’s writing for them in this work (and in many others) is relentlessly demanding: near non-stop playing, large leaps, high tessituras, and the power to cut through the full orchestra. The NSO horn section has it all, and even at the end of this gargantuan work they are still hitting their notes (this was a live recording, no there were no breaks or retakes!). So, a word to horn players, if any of you ever take a cellist seriously: put aside all those Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel excerpts you’ve been practicing your whole life and start practicing this work.

Maybe this is just an issue of microphone placement, but Trojahn’s percussion sounds too distant, if not too tame. Kamu’s percussion is far more present, but they are also much more menacing, brutal, assertive, and eruptive. Listen to the tam-tam in this recording, it’s like boiling acid to the face. These are the kind of things this music requires.

Kamu is also superior in terms of how he blends the instruments throughout the doublings. For example, in the final pages, Trojahn’s solo trumpet overshadows the violins and bit and is consequently too, well, trumpet-y for my taste. Same goes for the clarinets and violas in the preceeding lyrical island; the clarinet sound tends to stick out a bit too much.

Anyone who loves this symphony owes it to themselves to hear the Kamu, if they have not already. It is hands down, over 30 years later, the recording to have.

So, Mr. Christian Lindberg, the bar has been set high. You will have the same orchestra at your disposal. I am eagerly waiting to hear the results.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Symphony No. 6 (1963-1966)

Get ready, kids. This is a really long one. 

As I get ready to write this entry, I am coming off of a night of insomnia. While trying to sleep my mind was constantly harassed by some of the more “memorable” sections of conflict in this piece. At least it’s not as ironic as when I can’t sleep and I’m thinking about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Insomnia (which is, incidentally, a great piece).

I remember the 1997 CPO catalog quoting a review of Pettersson’s Symphony No. 6 from Fanfare magazine: “The Sixth is Pettersson’s gloomiest symphony. If you’re receptive to this music, then you’ll be overwhelmed by its profound distraction.” At this point I had never heard any of Pettersson’s music, but if a composer was getting reviews like this, I knew I had to give him a listen. After hearing the Symphony No. 7 and being blown away by it, I quickly sought out the Symphony No. 6.

This is an absolutely amazing work, a true emotional journey, and my favorite Pettersson symphony. Although one can understandably criticize the repetitiveness and lack of harmonic diversity in the second half of the work, the overall experience is so profoundly effective emotionally that any compositional “shortcomings” can be easily forgiven.

I really wish I knew the biographical circumstances of Pettersson’s life during the time he wrote this symphony (well, I wish I knew more about Pettersson’s entire life in general). I can’t remember where I read this, but apparently the prolonged genesis of this work (1963-1966) was due in part to his worsening rheumatoid arthritis, and his desperate attempts to find anything which would relieve his pain and/or stop the course of the disease. I also remember Pettersson saying that if one listens very carefully, the conclusion of this work is actually “positive,” although I hear a sense of resignation as well.

The musical material of the Symphony No. 6 is derived from the final Barefoot Song, Han ska släcka min lykta, which translates to “He can put out my little light.” Similar to the Violin Concerto No. 2, which quotes Herren går på ängen, in the symphony the song is not heard in an unadulterated form until the second half of the piece. From what I can gather, Pettersson takes the intervallic relationships which build the song, takes them apart, and then uses these constituent parts to develop the first half of the symphony (see below). The Symphony No. 6 was premiered on 21 January 1968 by the SRSO under the direction of Stig Westerberg, the dedicatee. What I would give to get my hands on the archival recording of that performance!!!

Although a one-movement work, the symphony can be divided into two giant halves. The first part, aside from the slow and gloomy introduction, is essentially wave after wave of conflict, tension, pain, and desperation. Each wave reaches a climax of sorts which does nothing to relieve the tension—we simply wait anxiously for the next assault. In the second half of the work, which is almost entirely in a strict Bb minor, the song is heard in its entirety. Here a sense of yearning, grief, and resignation takes hold. Despite this, towards the conclusion of the work Pettersson takes us to a lyrical island which is the most moving thing I’ve ever heard in symphonic music (again, see below).

The symphony opens with a slow introduction of quiet gloom. A repeated bass line sets the foundation for most of this section. The entrance of the upper strings brings in a sense of grief. By now Pettersson has introduced the key intervals which will inform much of the symphony proper: tritones and major/minor thirds (listen in particular to the C-A-Ab and subsequent variations thereafter). Also listen for a key motive: a leap of a tritone followed by a falling half step, minor third, and half step (G-C#-C-A-G#). The repeated bass line deviates briefly as the violins yearn and plead, and then die away. The bass line returns to order, and the final held F (a very important pitch in the first half) is quietly supported by a threatening timpani roll, as we anxiously wait for the symphony proper to begin.

An increase in tempo and an immediate sense of desperation begin the symphony proper. In the first two measures of this section Pettersson introduces a rhythmic motive which will be used repeatedly throughout the rest of the first half. In addition to intervals mentioned above, Pettersson has now introduced all the material which he will then use to build the symphony. Over an F pedal the music wastes no time in frantically reaching its first climax, a forceful assertion of E minor, to which a threatening tam-tam roll is added.

A brief repose, then repeated F naturals from the violas resume the music’s frantic push. A brass chorale, built from the bottom up (listen to how all the interval relationships here are thirds) is followed by a forceful gesture from the violins ending with repeated notes, reinforced by horns. The opening of the symphony proper is briefly recapitulated, but violas and cellos, using the first three pitches of the opening repeated bass line, take the music to a different direction. The forceful gesture is taken up by the bass instruments, and answered by high woodwinds and strings. This gesture is then truncated to just stabbing half-step drops. A percussion assault comes in, stepping aside only briefly for the horns to play a passage demanding ridiculous agility and power, followed by a resumption of the percussion storm. This wave then subsides.

This period of relative calm is used by the strings, who intone a brief lament, but the forceful motive breaks this up. The opening bass line returns; however the feeling this time is threatening and oppressive rather than just gloomy. The remainder of this wave is dominated by a high woodwind motive F-Ab-G-(Fb) (leaps of a minor third and major seventh, and drop of an augmented ninth), which according to the notes of the Okko Kamu LP, is like a “bird of prey.” A storm builds around this (listen to the horns and violins!), with the opening bass line returning again, with greater assertion. The storm reaches a frenzy, subsides, and the “bird of prey” is still there.

A repeated rhythm played by timpani, percussion, and horns leads into a somewhat queasy passage for low brass. The music quickly builds up intensity, leading to four blows from low brass and percussion. Accompanied (or should I say assaulted) by staggered, screaming violins, the violas desperately try to be heard. The violins give way to percussion, who then attack the violas and try to silence them (I'll keep my mouth shut and not say a viola joke here).

Skittering ponticello strings and quietly marching percussion lead the next phase. Triplet runs from upper woodwinds take us to restatements of the forceful gesture, subsequently appearing in a variation. Fragments from the opening section are heard, followed by a truly devilish motive, A-E-Db-Bb, played by xylophone and flutter-tongue piccolo. This motive is repeated as the orchestra rumbles threateningly below. The full orchestra soon takes over, building up to another climax, but rather than leading to a passage of relative calm, the conflict continues…

While being continually harassed by fluttering piccolo, xylophone and violins, like hailstones to the face, low brass and bass drum dish out dull blows of pain. The tam-tam and tenor drum only adds injury to injury. The dull blows of pain become sharp, with the addition of trumpets and choked suspended cymbal crashes. An insistent march rhythm in the percussion leads us away temporarily, but as the music calms down somewhat, the percussion remain present. The music builds up yet again, this time to storm of even more terrifying density (listen to those horns! again!). 

The music calms back down briefly, to a low C. We get only the shortest of breathers as the next wave starts brewing: busy counterpoint of an endless stream of triplets starts in the cellos and bassoons. Other instruments join in, and the triplets take over larger portions of the orchestra. The forest continues to thicken, but stops abruptly, leaving a snare drum roll, upper woodwinds and tremolo violins. The bass instruments enter in forcefully and the opening motive of the symphony proper screams to be heard. This gesture is repeated, and only the high woodwinds and tremolo violins are left.

Here it seems like Pettersson is setting us up for a climax of even greater cataclysmic proportions. However, a mighty c minor chorale comes in, led by the brass, with screaming, sighing commentary from violins and piccolo. The music has entered a new direction. The chorale fades away, and the music seems to enter an area of peace and calm. In C major, over a gently rocking bass line, the violas try lo lead us. Icy commentary from ponticello strings push the music in F major, for another futile attempt. This is also thwarted by ponticello strings, as the music moves mournfully to Bb minor. The entrance of the horns (a repeated note motive accompanied by a falling whole then half step) announces the resumption of the battle.

Repeated F naturals from the timpani and viola push the music back into conflict. The upper strings and woodwinds become increasingly agitated, the percussion whip up another storm, and when this wave passes by the repeated note/falling step motive is annunciated forcefully by the horns, which pass it on to the trumpets. Repeated F naturals from the timpani and violas try to reestablish themselves, but are of course met by resistance (like a broken record—listen to that chromatic upward lick from the horns!). The music dies down, and the repeated F naturals are still there. Low strings and woodwinds come in on a Bb minor chord, hinting at the Bb minor tonality which will dominate the rest of the work.

From this area of calm the music tries to swell up again, but falls away. Each attempt becomes increasingly stronger, like an impending attack of pain. After the assault has passed, screaming, stratospherically high violins intone the repeated note/falling step motive, in a desperate plea for the pain to stop. Excerpts from the introduction return, with commentary from solo violins. The violins then begin to sing a long melody, briefly accompanied by a jagged march. Strings only soon take over, in a beautiful chorale that begins longingly and mournfully, but quickly becoming impassioned. The jagged march returns, shatteringly so. The violins scream desperately as the music begins to calm down, setting up, finally, the entrance of the song.

Following a protracted IV and V, the music finally arrives at Bb minor. The very important F natural in the first half of the work has served as a dominant for this moment. The cellos and English horn intone the song, spaciously and unhurriedly, over a vast horizon of grief and loss. Gentle but insistent accompaniment is provided by percussion, in particular the tenor drum. After a brief transitional passage, featuring solo flute and oboe, the violins take up the song. A solo trumpet sings a countermelody, woodwinds provide a quiet commentary, and the timpani joins the percussion, softly pounding out repeated F naturals. The song reaches two climaxes, although the intensity of these moments is nothing compared to climaxes in the first half.

The music enters an area of relative stasis—a shattered, desolate landscape. Flutes and violin false harmonics provide some shimmers of life. However, this section is just a long preparation for the final battle of the symphony.

The first violins, doubled by flutes, try to sing an anguished, impassioned song. Cellos join in with a countermelody, vaguely canon-like. The rest of the orchestra tries to silence them, no-holds-barred. Low brass, bass drum, tam-tam and choked suspended cymbal add to the assault, constantly dealing us blows of pain. A brief respite featuring a climbing scale is heard, arriving at impassioned sighs from the violins and flutes, as if to say that the struggle will continue and defeat is not an option. The scale returns, leading up to the next section, which is probably the most moving and poignant in the entire symphonic literature (and I think I am reasonably familiar with symphonic music).

Over an ostinato-like, climbing, scalar bass line, the music begins a determined push to pull away from a world of grief and suffering. Although this time it is not a full attack from the orchestra, the percussion, in particular the snare and tenor drum, insistently try to thwart this effort, like a constant reminder of pain. However, the violins push on, through music of intense yearning to an increasing sense of peace and calmness, until finally we arrive at our destination.

This lyrical island which Pettersson takes us to pretty much embodies one of the most profound things about Pettersson’s music: the true meaning of beauty can only be realized after suffering. And that is what we have here. Music of near pure consonance: purifying, relieving, calming, but still somehow aware of all the suffering which has taken place before. I have written way too much up to this point, and here words will not suffice. I first heard this music over 10 years ago, and I am still deeply moved by it, every time.

The music shifts to minor and the percussion return: it is clear that our time here is limited. The strings and bassoon work their way downward, arriving at an Eb minor chord. After a pause the music returns to Bb minor, beginning the symphony’s coda. The emotional effect of leaving this lyrical island is both heartbreaking and devastating.

The violins, doubled by solo trumpet sing a long melody of grief, over a slowly treading accompaniment of repetitive harmonies. The music reaches a small climax, accented with timpani glissandi. A conventional V-I candence sets up the final utterance from bassoons, before the symphony concludes on a long Bb in the double basses.

What a journey this work is.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 5

Symphony No. 5
Berliner Sibelius Orchester
Andreas Peer Kahler, conductor
Bluebell ABCD 015

Symphony No. 5
Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Moshe Atzmon, conductor
Symphony No. 5
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken
Alun Francis
CPO 999 284-2

To my knowledge, the Bluebell disc is the first commercially available recording of this work, which is quite special considering the forces involved in its production. I was originally going to skip this recording and focus my review on the two discs involving professional forces. However, is offering this work at the absolutely ridiculous price of just $0.89 for an mp3 download, so I couldn’t pass it up.

The Berliner Sibelius Orchester (BSO) was founded by Andreas Peer Kahler with the intention of performing works by, you guessed it, Nordic composers. They are a non-professional band which gives just a couple of concerts each year. A few years ago I had the opportunity to see them perform Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, just a few days after watching their professional colleagues in the Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin in the same work. It was immediately clear that the BSO is not a professional group, although their playing was certainly more than passable. The same goes for their recording of Pettersson’s Symphony No. 5.

One distinguishing feature of Pettersson’s orchestral works is the extreme technical demands on the players. Unfortunately, this orchestra just doesn’t have the collective chops to pull this piece off, especially when compared to the competition. Shaky intonation and a somewhat overly dominant trumpet start the work off. Ensemble issues begin the symphony proper. The strings do not have the power or confidence to be sufficiently heard in the brass-dominated passages.

It certainly is not my intention to make my review of this recording a laundry list of the performance’s deficiencies. After all, if my orchestra decided to play this piece I would very enthusiastically be of part of it, even if our end product is totally unrecognizable (which would most likely be the case). Furthermore, if there are no regional restrictions to keep you from downloading it from amazon, you owe it to yourself as a Pettersson fan to give this version a try. I certainly do not regret it.

Moving on to the professional competition then—having listened to Atzmon’s and Francis’ recordings for years I still have not picked up on any significant musical or interpretive insights which sets them apart from each other. Even their timings are almost exactly the same. However, I keep on coming back to Atzmon’s recording simply because of how it sounds and “feels.” I know this is very vague but allow me to explain.

To my ears at least, Pettersson’s music requires a certain sharpness and coldness to do full justice to his particular expressive world. Occasionally this comes at the expense of technical quality, but not necessarily. To give an example from a previous review, as much as I liked Francis’ take of the Symphony No. 2, the raw sound and visceral approach of Westerberg feels more representative of Pettersson’s unique style. The same goes here. Listen to the stabbing and incisive attacks from the violas in the symphony opening. The low brass crescendos have a hard-edged quality to them, as opposed to the more burnished sound Francis gets. The timpani attacks and swells on D at the symphony’s breaking point are far more decisive and emphatic in Atzmon’s hands. These are the kinds of details which keep me coming back to Atzmon’s recording.

Having said that, there is certainly nothing obvious which is deficient in Francis’ version, and there will be listeners who prefer this recording over the other. Bottom line, you cannot go wrong with either Francis or Atzmon, and Kahler is definitely worth a listen, especially considering how inexpensive it is.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Symphony No. 5 (1960–1962)

With the Symphony No. 5 we enter Pettersson’s middle period, or the group of works that were composed in the 1960s. At this point Pettersson’s large-ensemble output was essentially split between full orchestral works and the string concertos. Recognition as a composer still remained elusive for him, and the rheumatoid arthritis which would ravage his body began taking its toll. 

The Symphony No. 5 is one of my favorite symphonies of the entire lot, although one could make the argument that some of my reasons for this do not indicate a sound mind (well, liking any Pettersson could be indicative of some mental disturbance). In the works of the 1950s Pettersson demonstrates his prowess at creating large-scale works with just the tiniest amount of starting material; however, to my ears many of these works suffer from a lack of cohesion and a tendency to come across as long-winded and fragmentary. Here, Pettersson shows a real mastery and control of his material, spread over a large canvas but always with a sense of purpose and destination. 

Pettersson composed the Symphony No. 5 during the years 1960-62. This was the last work he was able to commit to paper in his own handwriting (how did he write the rest of his works then?). The premiere took place on 8 November 1963 during a performance of the Nutida Musik concert series, with the SRSO under the direction of Stig Westerberg (is there a recording?!). The symphony was apparently a success, although Pettersson would still have to wait a few more years for his breakthrough with the Symphony No. 7

In the CPO liner notes Andreas KW Meyer describes the Symphony No. 5 as a transitional work between the symphonies which came before and after. While I can understand this point of view, I feel that it was the Symphony No. 4, where Pettersson hints at his more refined style in the Symphonies No. 5 and 6, which served as the bridge work between his early and middle periods. 

Readers interested in a more objective view of this work should read the excellent and in-depth analysis written by Colin Davis (check out the links section). As usual, I’ll keep my discussion on the more subjective side. From a musical point of view, one of the amazing things about this work is how Pettersson bases almost the entire symphony on one interval, the second. What keeps me coming back, however, is just how emotionally affecting this piece is. Throughout the work’s 40 minute span we have an almost unending landscape of gloom, which becomes increasingly oppressive and threatening. The tension is kept at a slow burn; the early climaxes are brief and suggestive of more to come, rather than being complete in themselves. 

The symphony begins with a slow introduction, similar to that of the Symphony No. 2 and the introductory sections of the forthcoming symphonies (6-8). I really cannot get enough of this opening section, and have been coming back to it regularly ever since I first heard it over 10 years ago. It is extremely effective both musically and emotionally. The opening pitch series, D-E-D#-C#-C, plays a very important role in the next 6 minutes (D, coincidentally or not, was the last pitch of the Symphony No. 4). A drone comes in, on the pitch B. Pettersson oscillates between D-E-D#-C# over several voices and registers in a quiet dynamic, creating a web of slowly shifting harmonies and silently grinding dissonances. With the pitches involved Pettersson suggests several tonalities, C maj, c min, and e min. To my ears, the B acts either as a leading tone to C, a deceptive cadence in e min, or the dominant of e min. With the D#, I hear either a leading tone to e min or an Eb, suggesting c min.  

Pettersson introduces an angular idea based on an e min arpeggio, providing forward movement. Icy repeated sighs are played in the violins. A stabbing gesture played by violas and clarinets is answered by threatening rumbling in the bassoons and double bases. The arpeggio idea brings us to the major climax of this section, with a bass drum roll crescendo leading to horns screaming in their peak register. The music calms down to a dark chorale in the low brass. Solo bassoon and a mournful passage for strings introduce a transitional passage, which slowly ascends by half steps, setting up the symphony proper. 

Oscillations between the pitches C and Db over a tenor drum roll begin the main section of the symphony. The opening pitch series is repeated and varied several times. The first climax of this section arrives quickly, but as mentioned above, it does not take the music in another direction, but continues the music’s progression. At the end of the climax, Bb-B-A-Ab is heard. This variation of the opening pitch set now assumes a prominent place in the musical landscape.
The gesture Bb-F-Gb (a leap of a fifth followed by a descent of a major seventh) introduces a lengthy section of a gloomy and oppressive nature, leading to another climax, subsiding to repeated C#s in the violins. Over this strings and woodwinds exchange in a fragmented dialogue, based (of course) on seconds. Cellos and basses interject forcefully with a threatening gesture (again a variation). The Bb-F-Gb comes back. This section acts as a wave leading up to a larger climax. When the music subsides the Bb-F-Gb comes back again, in a particularly catchy section featuring timpani and low strings. 

After another wave Pettersson introduces a variation featuring large leaps, first played on the horn, followed by strings then piccolo. A sense of increasing desperation comes in when the tuba takes up this motive, over F-Gb oscillations in the violas (akin to the opening of the symphony proper). At this point Pettersson really starts to create a sense of impending disaster—listen to the threatening idea played by the low brass and low strings. The increasing prominence of percussion hints at the major storm to come, but Pettersson keeps this in check; it is too soon. 

A kinda weird passage for solo woodwinds leads into a “calm before the storm” section, with triplet rhythms in the timpani. An insistent snare drum marches in from the distance, accompanied by threatening low brass and strings, reminding us that the storm is about to come in. High violin trills set up the timpani entrance, sfp on the pitch D, followed by a rapid crescendo. This is the turning point in the symphony, the breaking point for the tension which has built up.
The sfp timpani on D/high violin trills response is repeated several times. The horn entrance on the chord (Gb-Bb-F) pushes the music into the storm. During the storm Pettersson places regularly spaced “arrival points” of minor triads featuring screaming horns. Trumpets lead the proceedings between these points. A sense of desperation remains. This section reaches a climax, probably the biggest of the work thus far, featuring several tam-tam crashes, before dying away into f min. 

With the storm passed we now find ourselves in a place of cold desolation. A long line is heard, played by bassoon and icy false harmonics on the violins. Although this is a pretty clear f min context, Pettersson inserts A naturals creating major/minor tension. Soon the full orchestra comes in, but only briefly. The Bb-F-Gb motive returns. A brief break in the clouds is heard, eloquently played by strings. Shortly thereafter the percussion enters on a repeated march rhythm, coming in from the distance but quickly increasing in volume to an absolutely ferocious fff, after which the music dies away again, leading into the coda of the symphony. 

After the cataclysmic conclusion to the symphony proper, the music tentatively begins to pick up the pieces and come back to life. The variation heard at the beginning of the symphony proper returns, over an oscillating accompaniment slowly rising by half steps (this rising is reminiscent of the conclusion of the opening section). Timpani and low strings respond with a repeated G natural motive, ultimately acting as a dominant for c min. E naturals are heard, creating a major/minor tension.

At the arrival of c min music of loss and mourning is heard. Low strings and timpani continue to repeat the G natural motive, as the music tentatively and hesitantly returns back to c min. Double basses, accented with soft tam-tam strokes drop to the depths. Fragments of the opening gesture from the symphony proper are exchanged in the woodwinds and upper strings. Although some E naturals are thrown around, the symphony comes to a close on c min. 

This is an incredible piece. Although I am continually impressed by the creative mileage Pettersson gets from just that one interval, it is the powerful emotional effect of this work that keeps me coming back. The opening section feels like solitude in a barren, frozen and sunless landscape (hey, I live in Finland now!). The symphony proper is gloomy and oppressive, and as the piece unfolds these feelings are heightened; the tension continually increasing. The storm does not really clear the tension from the landscape, but takes us to music of mourning before the final cataclysm. When it is over, all that remains is solitude, desolation, and cold.

Definitely not a pick-me-upper, but a powerful work. I still cannot get enough of it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 4

As Christian Lindberg has not recorded this symphony yet, and I do not know if Comissiona's recording is available anywhere, I have nothing to compare Alun Francis' recording with. Nevertheless, musically and technically there are no obvious deficiencies; and the recorded sound is on the warm side, typical of the CPO series.

Compared to the other work on this disc, I feel that Francis makes a more convincing argument for this symphony—a more streamlined and logical narrative as opposed to Symphony No. 3’s fragmented neuroticism, which is further accentuated by Francis’ slower tempos.

Anyway, it goes without saying that if you want to hear this work, this may be the only option you have, so, if you do not own this CD already, go out and get it (it’s cheap too.)