Monday, December 31, 2012

Mitt arbete är färdigt?

Dear Friends,

Exactly two years ago I began this blog project, my little tribute to Pettersson on his 100th anniversary year, with the intent of listening to all of his orchestral works before his big birthday on 19 September 2011. Seeing that I just posted my thoughts on the Symphony No. 1 just under two weeks ago, it goes without saying that I did not even come close to making my intended deadline. 

Regardless, during this time I have immersed myself in Pettersson’s music to a level of depth which I have not attempted with any other composer I know. I have been haunted, disturbed, sometimes even harassed to the point of insomnia by this music. During this survey I have reassessed works which I had given up on in the past, several of which now rank among my favorites. I have gained an exponentially greater appreciation of this music and the profound message that it carries.

During this time I have had the privilege of seeing Pettersson’s music performed live. I have performed Pettersson’s music on one of the greatest stages in all of classical music. I have visited Pettersson's grave and his old neighborhoods in Stockholm. I have been quoted on the radio, word-for-word (unacknowledged!) by the BBC. Christian Lindberg has visited this blog and left comments. Guest writers have contributed to this blog, their writings insightful and often deeply moving. Readers from all over the world have visited, from the casual to the die-hard Pettersson fan, from the curious to those who simply stumbled upon this blog by accident. I never expected to receive so many visitors, and I am extremely grateful for your support and comments. 

In addition to being my tribute to Pettersson, I have hoped that this blog has and will continue to serve as an English-language resource to this great composer. However, having made it through all of the orchestral works, I think my work here if finished. Having said that, I will still come back with information on upcoming concerts, concert reviews, and hopefully more guest blog entries. If it is Pettersson-related, I will do my best to present it here. 

Keep listening to this music. Keep studying this music. Keep spreading the word. I sincerely hope that during my lifetime, Pettersson’s music will go the way of Mahler: his time will come. 

See you around!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Symphony No. 1 (1951-)

Up until very recently, the Symphony No. 1 was one of the great mysteries of this amazing composer. Pettersson left the score incomplete at his death but was apparently tinkering with it throughout his lifetime. He forbade performance of the sketches during his lifetime, but did not disown the work like other composers who reject their early efforts. His next symphony was a bona fide Symphony No. 2, thus suggesting that Pettersson found enough merit in these sketches to leave them as his Symphony No. 1

Pettersson began work on the Symphony No. 1 in 1951, which puts it the in the period of his Seven Sonatas, Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra, and his studies in Paris with Leibowitz. A number of theories have been put forth as to why Pettersson never completed the work: it may be possible that at the time Pettersson’s compositional abilities were not quite at the level to fully realize the ideas he had, or he just wanted to get around to his Symphony No. 2, which the Swedish Radio commissioned from him in 1952. You can learn more about this from the excellent liner notes and, even better, the DVD documentary which is included in the BIS recording. 

Throughout this survey I have always tried to make my opinions clear on each work in question, but as with every unfinished work, personal opinions in such a context must be taken with a grain of salt. We have no idea how close or far Pettersson was in achieving his final thoughts, and there is certainly a degree of wandering, of fragmentedness, to this work. When listening, we know pretty much right away that this is a Pettersson work; the obsessive usage of just a handful of ideas, the neurotic and twisted images which are found in the Symphony No. 2, the brief glimpses of sunshine through a dark sky.  We hear him doing things which foreshadow much later works, as well as things which he seems to do only once in this symphony and never again. 

For about the first 60% of this symphony, it really does feel like it is part of a finished work. In my opinion there is a clear sense of direction and purpose, ideas flow into each other “logically,” if not jarringly (by early Pettersson standards, of course). I would even make the argument that Pettersson sounds confident here, if not as a symphonic composer certainly as an orchestrator. 

At around 17 minutes (the sketches last around 30 minutes) Pettersson quotes his Barefoot Song, Min Längtan (My Longing), a tragic oasis of calm. From this point onwards, the work starts to lose direction, and the degree of completion clearly begins to thin out. You can hear Pettersson struggling with what to do next and how to tie it together. 

Nevertheless, a huge thanks to Christian Lindberg and his assistants (watch the DVD!) for putting together a performing version from Pettersson’s sketches. While this is definitely not the final product, what we do have is certainly compelling and quite effective, sometimes emotionally devastating, and another (albeit incomplete) piece to the Pettersson puzzle. Let’s get to the music then.

Similar to his mature efforts, almost immediately Pettersson gives us most, if not all of the material he will work with. A slow half-step fall (F-E) from lower strings sets up a chamber music trio between bassoon, flute, and oboe. The bassoon enters on E-G, the flute F-Ab. Immediately, a tension is established with minor seconds and the ambiguity of major-minor, which was already explored in the Barefoot Songs. Our woodwind guides lead us briefly through a meandering forest, before the entrance of violins, climbing tentatively and chromatically upwards.

Bassoon, oboe, and flute return, accompanying a viola solo. Violins return and the music becomes agitated. A percussion-led build-up, foreshadowing the Symphony No. 7, doesn’t quite reach a climax, but gives way to an oboe solo. A sense of expectancy comes over, suggesting that the first build-up was just a glimpse of what to come. Another percussion buildup, a slackening of tempo, leads to an arrival point, revealing bassoon, oboe, and flute, reminding us of the chamber music heard at the beginning.

A bridging passage sets up a rather nervous section marked by stabbing strings, somewhat sardonic oboes, and snare drum. Careening downward string glissandi, pushing the music forward in section which sounds like it is getting frustrated with itself (listen to the obsessive C-Eb in the lower register), lead to a brief but truly eruptive climax. However, the sense of expectation continues; soon we hear another eruptive, brass-lead climax, featuring sounds which I don’t think Pettersson ever really gives us again in the rest of his career. 

A timpani swell leads to a nervous, neurotic passage for woodwinds, featuring large leaps. Low brass enter, along with grinding minor seconds from the violins. The music fades away, led by a confused horn solo, but is roused immediately with a timpani roll. More chamber music for woodwinds follows. Violins and snare drum enter, trying to agitate the music. Brief trumpet calls punctuate the landscape. 

The music arrives at a strained eb minor, but D and C naturals in the violins quickly destabilize the tonality. Some very jagged violin writing highlight Pettersson’s major/minor ambiguity. A nocturnal passage follows, woodwinds guiding, with shuddering sounds from muted brass. A brief burst of activity, then the music moves into another direction.

Angular writing and downward slithering string glissandi are featured prominently in the following section. The music builds to a brief climax, with timpani foreshadowing the opening storm heard in the Symphony No. 14. Pettersson builds up to what seems to be another climax, but backs off before going over the edge. The third time’s a charm here; pounding timpani and fluttering brass, sliding downward, make up the climax here. However, Pettersson moves right on, a trombone glissando leads to the next section. 

Fragments from of the opening are heard, briefly led by solo viola, but Pettersson cuts it off with rude muted brass chords. Pettersson hints back to the opening woodwind chamber music, but there is a clear sense of expectation in the background. Trumpet and snare drum along with downward string glissandi, the slightest shudder from ponticello strings, transition to a twisted, writhing dance, led by violas. 

As the dance music disappears into the shadows, solo strings take up the reigns to guide us through the next section. More woodwind chamber music follows, leading to a transitional solo horn passage. Tremolo strings accompanying solo horn and trombone sets up a strained eb minor cadence, but Pettersson throws in major/minor ambiguity with the solo clarinet which follows.

A virtuosic solo violin, accompanied by viola, transition to high woodwinds. Glassandi string pizzicati lead to the next passage, featuring a solo clarinet and flute lightly accompanied by violin pizzicati. Suddenly a demented circus appears: snarling, muted brass accompany an unhinged, piercing clarinet solo. The circus disappears in a sea of ponticello strings. 

The clouds break as the music calms down. Lower strings suggest c minor tonality, but as the upper strings make their shimmering, tiered entrances, the tonality shifts to major. However, the lower strings bring in Db and Eb, and a stabbing entrance from violins on B/Cb push the tonality to eb minor. A beautiful clarinet solo follows, but a G natural keeps the major/minor ambiguity in place. 

We have now reached the tragic oasis of this work. Accompanied only by a solo cello, playing held open strings, a solo horn quotes the Barefoot Song, Min Längtan. From this point on, the music begins to sound increasingly fragmented and incomplete.

Leaving this oasis the music sounds as if it is slowing waking up, but this being Pettersson some rude-sounding muted brass help the process along. We move into a forest of some pretty busy contrapuntal writing featuring largely strings and woodwinds. A brief downward run from a solo violin, answered by  a solo trumpet introduces a quasi-fugal section for strings which sounds like it could have been a lost fragment from one of the string concertos. Virtuosic passages abound for solo violin and viola are found throughout, sometimes in dialogue with each other. 

Quasi bell-like woodwinds accompany a brief line for violas. By now the music has clearly thinned out in texture, and one gets the clear feeling that here Pettersson had only sketched a fraction of the lines he intended to have in the finished product. Some very busy contrapuntal writing is introduced by cellos, which is then spread to other sections of the orchestra. Listen to the solo trumpet buried in the texture. 

The busy contrapuntal writing for cellos returns, leading to bass pizzacati. Horns and woodwinds enter, but this seems more like an accompanimental figure for something else Pettersson planned on putting in. More busywork for cellos (and basses) serves as a bridging passage to the next section, where the tritone and fifth are key intervals.  We’re down to fragments now: a solo oboe, then arpeggios in violins. Contrapuntal violins accompany a solo bassoon, with punctuations from oboes. A short progression by horns and the piece (or at least the sketches) come to an end.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Allan Pettersson archives, Uppsala

The beautiful Carolina Rediviva building houses the archives.
After the performance of the Symphony No. 9 my Pettersson-immersion session was not over yet. The following day I took the train to the beautiful city of Uppsala to visit Per-Henning Olsson and the Allan Pettersson archives. 

The Allan Pettersson archives are held in a secured room in the Carolina Rediviva building. After checking in my coat and bags, providing my passport information and signing a lot of papers, I was given access to this tremendous treasure trove of Pettersson-related material.

As I only had a few hours I was only able to scratch the surface of everything which was available. One thing which immediately struck me was how very assiduous Pettersson was in his record keeping. It seemed like every receipt, every scrap of paper, every letter, every sketch, every everything, was organized. He even kept track of his composer peers' salaries. Considering what kind of composer Pettersson was, this (perhaps excessive?) attention to detail is not surprising. 

One of the many highlights of these archives is Pettersson’s sketches for his Symphony No. 2. You can see from his sketches how he worked out the material which ended up in the final product. I saw scraps of paper where Pettersson wrote down his notes for ranges of the different saxophones, in preparation for the Symphony No. 16. And, I held in my hand an original program from the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 7, which was of course Pettersson’s breakthrough. 

It was a pity that I didn’t have more time to go through everything (and it’s a pity I don’t speak Swedish) but any serious Pettersson fan who is ever in Uppsala needs to visit the archive. It is truly special. Thanks again to Per-Henning for serving as my enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hälsningar från Norrköping! (2012)

About 67:40. 

One of the big questions regarding the Symphony No. 9 is performance time, and for those of you who have been waiting for me to post this review of the Norrköping performance, there is your answer. 

I have to admit going into this concert with a slight sense of worry. Given the extreme demands this work places on the performers, I was wondering: could they pull it off? Would there be a train wreck? Would it make “sense” in live performance? 

One thing which happened to me while listening to the performance, which does not happen to me when listening to a recording, was a real feeling of disorientation during the first few minutes. Pettersson throws several different (related) ideas at you right from the beginning, and starts spinning them. However, once I gave into this and just let the music “be,” I really lost a sense of time and everything sort of just flowed inevitably to the very end of the piece. 

As mentioned above, kudos to Lindberg for taking literally Pettersson’s performance times and tempo indications. Even though this performance took about the same time as Francis’ on CPO, I got a better sense of the music really moving along. Let’s face it, as much as I like this piece there are some really clunky sections, and in Lindberg’s hands they never overstayed their welcome; it felt like we were focusing on parts of giant puzzle, while always keeping in mind the big picture. 

The arrival of the climax after the extremely protracted “spinning” section (one before 78, for those of you with the score) was extremely well done, a real sense of culmination after a long and uncomfortable ride. The “Carmen” section sounded less “Carmen”-like and more shadowy and ghostly, thanks to some truly atmospheric contributions from percussion. The percussion did a magnificent job, sounding much more confident here than last year in the Symphony No. 6.

The Norrköping string sections are relatively small by full-orchestra standards, and I really could have used a lot more string sound in the performance. This of course can be fixed in the recording. But an extra special mention for the strings, as they went for it. Like the percussion, I got a sense of tentativeness from the strings in last year’s performance of the Symphony No. 6, but this time around, they dug in an attacked the music. Yes, I could have used a bigger sound, there were intonation issues and not every note was hit, but way to go guys!

And of course congrats to Christian Lindberg for keeping this massive piece together and with a real sense of musical purpose. Believe it or not, the work got a standing ovation. And guess what is coming next year in the Pettersson/Lindberg/Norrköping collaboration? Symphony No. 4 and 16!