Monday, October 24, 2011

Recordings: Symphonic Movement

To my knowledge there are two commercially available recordings of this work. There is the CPO recording, the one I will be discussing here, and another found on a BIS box set celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, containing a whole bunch of other works as well. I do not have access to the BIS recording but have listened to it maybe two times many years ago, when I could access it from the University of Wisconsin library.

I do not remember what year the BIS recording was made or who was conducting it, but I do remember it not being competitive compared to Francis on CPO. According to the BIS website, the performance time for this recording is 13:32, which is around 3 minutes longer than what Pettersson asks for. When Pettersson makes a clear indication for what he wants in terms of performance time, I wonder why someone just goes ahead and comes up with dramatically slower tempos.

Anyway, without really having much to compare to I can still feel confident that Francis and the BBC Scottish SO really do a fine job with this score. Maybe I could make a few minor quibbles about how the trumpets sound a little pinched when pushing in their upper registers, or how the horns could be a bit more powerful, but this is easily the version to have.

I wonder if Christian Lindberg will record this as part of his cycle, as Segerstam never got around to it…

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Symphonic Movement (1973)

The Symphonic Movement has a special place in my heart. Although I considered myself a serious Pettersson fan shortly after hearing his music for the first time (this is the late 90’s), I found most of the works from his early and middle periods to be a little over my head and inaccessible for my (then) tastes. The Symphonic Movement was an exception; it was one of the works from his late period (the other was the Symphony No. 15) which I listened to most often.

Returning to this work for this survey brings back memories of me sitting alone in my small, grungy, cockroach-infested apartment on the outskirts of the University of Wisconsin campus, depressed, eating delivery pizza 3-4 times a week, and browsing the internet on a dial-up connection while listening to this piece. Those were the days…

The Symphonic Movement was commissioned by Swedish Radio channel TV1 for a film essay by Boris Engström, who was also the dedicatee (anyone know the dates of the premiere, TV or in concert?). At around 11 minutes, it is a compact, tightly argued introduction to Pettersson’s late style, and I would even recommend it as an introduction to Pettersson’s music in general, if you don’t feel like sitting through the 45 minutes of the Symphony No. 7.

The piece opens with a tone series played by violas and woodwinds, in a low-mid register. One does not, however, get the sense that this will be a strictly atonal or serial work. The snare drum makes a violent appearance, along with a leaping motive (E-F-Db) in high woodwinds. Both of these gestures will come back repeatedly. A long melody appears in the strings (beautifully exchanged between violins and violas), taking the leaping motive as a start. Upper woodwinds add commentary before the strings continue the melody. This interplay continues until the music reaches an arrival at bb minor.

The snare drum announces the next section, lead by churning, propulsive strings and angular high woodwinds. With the entrance of tam-tam and tenor drum the music assumes a sense of desperation. Two motives now dominate the conflicted, stormy landscape: a strained, stuttering upward motive, moving up two half steps, followed by an equally strained snarl, a fall of a half step, here harmonized in perfect fifths. Trumpets lead one final push before this section breaks. Pounding timpani accompany horns and trumpets playing fragments of the long melody (including the leaping motive). This section runs out of steam and leads directly to a calmer, dreamlike, a minor-ish section, dominated by strings and woodwinds.

The snare drum returns, along with churning and propulsive strings. The stuttering motive is heard on trumpets, this time in downward motion. Over a quietly nervous and conflicted string accompaniment (a dense forest of the stuttering and snarl motives) horn and cellos sing a long melody, heard in the previous, dreamlike section. The return of snare drum and churning strings push the music to a breaking point again: horns annunciate the leaping motive, trumpets give one more push, and repeated notes from upper woodwinds lead to a strained, but conclusive V of bb minor.

Arriving on bb minor strings and woodwinds take up and exchange the long melody. Repeated Fs from the timpani give a stronger sense of forward motion. Snare drum and churning strings return yet again, but this time it doesn’t have a chance to go far; a minor reasserts itself, fragments of the dreamlike section are heard. A bassoon adds a little bit of color/conflict on an F natural, right before the piece concludes quietly on a minor.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Recordings: Symphony No. 11

Symphony No. 11
NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover
Alun Francis, conductor
CPO 999 285-2
Symphony No.11
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam, conductor
Francis’ Pettersson recordings for CPO have always been more than good, if not just a little less than great. However, coincidence or not, I seem to prefer his competition when he has it: Segerstam on Symphonies 3 and 10, Westerberg on Symphony No. 2, and Atzmon on Symphony No. 5. I am pleased to say that on this work, Francis has on display many strengths which allow me to confidently say (well, at least in my opinion) that his account is the one you want.

Like the previous entries in his cycle, Segerstam brings to the table great orchestral playing, a lot of surface excitement, and extra-sharp attacks from brass and percussion. However, as great as this is, I found that with this approach the symphony continued to elude me, while Francis’ approach made the music much more communicative from the outset, clarifying the somewhat elusive message of this work.

Similar to the Symphony No. 10, Segerstam is a bit faster than Francis, about 24:40 to 25:30, respectively (in the score Pettersson calls for a duration of 24 minutes, so both are pretty close). Despite the slightly shorter duration I find my attention flagging with Segerstam, while Francis does a much better job of keeping me engaged.

Ok, so what is so great about Francis’ take here? Although Francis and the NDR Hannover sound rougher and less secure in this music compared to their Swedish peers, and the brass attacks can sound quite shy (compared to Segerstam’s terrifying snarls) pretty much everything else goes right. For starters, there is a better sense of balance, particularly in the strings and woodwinds compared to the brass. This is clear from the outset. For example, listen to how Francis brings out the flute and piccolo counter melodies against the viola section solo at the beginning. This makes the “false” notes come out more clearly and dare I say sound “natural.” At the conclusion of the opening section Francis brings out the rumblings from the lower strings and bassoons (3 after rehearsal 5), really drawing us in to this new world.

Bringing out all the interesting string writing and clearly defining Pettersson’s rhythmic ideas is something which Francis emphasizes throughout his reading. Overall, I get the strong impression that Francis is letting the music itself generate the tension, and letting the music itself “make sense,” for lack of a better term. At the conclusion of this work, by no means a real resolution, Francis adds just the right amount of weight to the final trumpet push, giving us the feeling that this is the end—no questions at all—to this particular journey. It is about as satisfactory an ending as one can achieve with this work.

With Pettersson, you really cannot go wrong when either Segerstam or Francis are on the podium (and there are usually few other options!), but for this elusive work, go for Francis the first time around.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Symphony No. 11 (1973)

Sorry about the very long delay. Back to work!

Despite the challenges these symphonies present to the listener, careful and engaged listening will usually reveal Pettersson’s overall symphonic argument (such as use and development of motives, rhythms, intervals, gestures, etc.). Of course, repeated listening may be required to grasp some of the finer details of each work.

The sketches of the Symphony No. 11 date from Pettersson’s nine-month hospital stay in 1970-1, and this work is sometimes considered an accompanying work to his Symphony No. 10. Although this symphony may be Pettersson’s most violent and brutal in comparison to all that has come before, I actually find it quite “accessible.”  The Symphony No. 11, on the other hand, I feel is Pettersson’s most elusive work thus far in this survey. Only after several listenings with score have I begun to come to my own understanding of the emotional message of this work.

After the battle depicted in the Symphony No. 10 has concluded, Pettersson takes us to a strange, perhaps unsettling calm. Soon we are taken into a nightmarish world which seems to me as if we are observers, but not actively participating. Fragments of the preceding symphony appear, like a glimpse back to the world we came from. The music wants to arrive at a breaking point; a great climax, but it never seems to come. Seemingly out of nowhere, an 8-part canonic passage for strings suggests an emergence from this world, and the return of the opening material seems like exiting through the same gates we entered, into a blinding light which quickly fades. Without getting a chance to catch our breath, the symphony closes.

The Symphony No. 11 was commissioned by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra “Harmonien” and premiered on 24. October 1974.  

The symphony opens with a brief passage of simple but somewhat uneasy beauty. A descending scale in the oboes is harmonized in contrary motion by violas and clarinets. Horns, violas and cellos play an ascending scale filling the space of a tenth. Flute and piccolo continue the line. The violas sing a long melody of quiet yearning, accompanied by flute and piccolo, occasionally sticking in “off” notes. Oboes play the opening descending scale again, and the music quickly changes character soon after.

Pettersson now takes the music to a clearly more agitated landscape. Syncopated scale fragments, both ascending and descending are heard while violas and lower strings provide a jagged, forward moving counterpoint. Biting muted brass interjections and short sighing gestures add to the busy musical fabric. We arrive at a brief climax; a fragment of the viola line heard earlier. The music calms back down, with a syncopated gesture played by trumpets, but builds up again quickly.

Pettersson now creates a sense of anticipation: over a steady timpani beat strings enter in canonically, section by section, along with the appearance of snare drum. Parallel diminished chords are heard in upper woodwinds and celesta, followed by low brass. Reminiscent of the Symphony No. 7, the parallel diminished chords are played in upward motion with reduced note values, leading to forceful horn call, an annunciation of sorts.

The next passage seems like Pettersson is looking back at the battle which has passed: the Symphony No. 10. Sixteenth note licks and a distinctive rhythm (eighth-eighth-dotted quarter-eighth) are fragments of key motives from the previous symphony. Stabbing attacks by muted brass push the music forward, with increasing violence (listen to the horns push the music over the top).

Strings continue the music’s forward movement, but in a quieter, somewhat more meditative way. However, stabbing muted brass try to disrupt this reverie. The brass soon forcefully take over the orchestral landscape. The entrance of xylophone signal the entrance into a new section.

The following section to me feels like driving through a frightening, nightmarish landscape, but remaining a passive observer. A long melody played by the violins lead us in. An intensification of the music is brought on by the entrance of brass and extremely angular and bone-rattling xylophone. Before we begin our drive away, listen to a rising motive played by basses and bassoons, which will gain prominence later on.

Over the next extended section this frightening landscape fades farther away to the distance, but its disturbing memory is still present. Over a constant stream of quietly frantic eighth notes in the orchestra, a long trumpet line leads us. The eighth notes give way to a repeated rhythm in the low brass, answered by high woodwinds. A prominent line for clarinets, reinforced by icy violin false harmonics, lead to the return of the rising motive.

The rising motive seems to be the focal point of this section, and Pettersson slowly fills in the orchestral space around it. As the textures thicken the music intensifies, the rising motive becomes compressed, and the brass make a forceful annunciation. A repeated note motive in the brass tries to push the music over the edge. The climax never arrives and the music takes a new direction with swaying parallel thirds in bassoons, oboes and flutes. A steady march ensues, with orchestra commentary in fourth-based harmonies. The music intensifies again, with sharp attacks from percussion and brass. Repeated note brass attacks and clanging xylophone try to push the music over, but again the climax never arrives.

The music retreats to a slow burn, but quietly churning strings suggest that more is to come. Over a series of waves the music builds in intensity, with an increasing sense of strain. Slowly falling scales are played in the brass as the forest thickens, but once again, no climax is reached and the music simply disappears into a screaming, stratospheric Db, played by violins.

String sections enter one by one; an 8-part canon of ridiculous contrapuntal density. The forest gradually thins out as the string sections find common ground. The lower strings play drawn-out scale fragments, in both directions. We are now emerging from this world, and returning to the same gates from which we entered.

Muted low brass and tam-tam make an imposing and threatening entrance (for some reason I’m reminded of the coda to Shosty’s Symphony No. 11 here). The horns play a motive heard earlier, which I described as a fragment from the Symphony No. 10. Our emergence approaches a sense of completion as the opening music returns. Muted trumpets lead the final push, almost like a blinding light. In an a minor tonality, a slight flutter of Ab and Eb is heard; a small nuance to the sense of uncertainty as the symphony comes to a close. One could say that the battle (Symphony No. 10) and the aftermath (Symphony No. 11) are now behind us, but no closure has been achieved. All we know is that we’ve survived.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Nach Berlin. Wiederholung: NACH BERLIN!!!

A little while ago I humbly asked for your patience as the blog updates would slow down a bit, as I was going to cram an audition for the German-Scandinavian Youth Orchestra, even though I'm not quite young enough to officially qualify.

Well, either my audition sufficiently impressed them (doubtful) or perhaps they lowered their standards a bit for a Pettersson fan, but nevertheless, I'm in!!! 

It is worth noting that there has been a program change: maybe because of the fact that Pettersson's Symphony No. 7 is being "overplayed" on this anniversary year we are instead playing 8 of the Barefoot Songs and the first movement of the Symphony No. 8. I would have preferred that we play the whole symphony and drop out the Barefoot Songs, but one cannot be too picky. 

I'm horribly jet-lagged right now from a long plane journey, so I'm too delirious to believe that I actually made it in, but wow!