Monday, April 23, 2012

Nej, Nej!!!

After the Pettersson "overload" last year of mostly performances of the Barefoot Songs and the Symphony No. 7 (there were many major exceptions, however), it appears that the major Swedish orchestras are going back to business as usual in neglecting Pettersson, who just happens to be Sweden's major symphonist. Both the Göteborg Symphony and the Royal Stockholm Phil have recently released their 2012-2013 schedules, and Pettersson is noticeably absent. Word on the street is that the Lindberg will be performing the Symphony No. 9 in Norrköping this coming season, but unless Malmö or the Swedish Radio Symphony have something big coming up (doubt it), it looks like last year was your year to get your live Pettersson fix. 

Disappointed? Yes. Surprised? Unfortunately not in the least.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Vox Humana (1974)

Vox Humana
Marianne Mellnäs (Soprano), Margot Rödin (Alto)
Sven-Erik Alexandersson (Tenor), Erland Hagegård (Bariton), 
Swedish Radio Choir
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Stig Westerberg, conductor

I must admit that before I began this survey, I had never listened to this piece. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was anticipating that it would be recognizably Petterssonian from the outset, perhaps strident string writing reminiscent of the string orchestra concertos, accompanying a choir (which is struggling to be heard above the tumult). The first time I heard the opening two movements (I am using the Naxos Music Library here) I double-checked to make sure that I was actually listening to Pettersson and not Rosenberg, the other composer on this disc. Although in some of the later movements it is clear that we are listening to Pettersson, I must admit that when I heard the first few measures I didn’t notice those distinctly Petterssonian stamps which define the rest of this output.

I only have access to the song texts but not the program notes which come with the BIS CD, so I really cannot say much about the work’s history. In the early 1970s it was clear that Pettersson was attracted to the writings of Latin American poets, as the social and human message in these poems must have resonated with the composer. While Neruda is featured on Vox Humana, Pettersson also sets the text of several other poets in this work (Bandeira, Laínez, Retamar, Vallejo, Mendes, Guillén, Ricardo, and Barnet, to be precise). In contrast to the Symphony No. 12, with a rather consistent message found in the Neruda texts, in this work the subject matter of the poems is somewhat more varied.

As I’ve said before, I’m a poetry and literature moron, so whatever I think about the meaning of these poems should be taken with a grain of salt. If I had to generalize I would say that these poems, taken together, are a group of portraits depicting life of people who are at the bottom of society, forgotten. However, noticeably absent in comparison to the Symphony No. 12 is the nearly constant feeling of rage, indignity, and overt defiance. The music reflects this as well.

One of the unique aspects of this work is it pretty much the only place in Pettersson’s output to hear the composer’s a cappella choral writing, which is quite beautiful. Particularly effective are moments when Pettersson employs a solo voice accompanied by choir, such as in the thirteenth poem of Part I, The Final Poem (Den sista dikten), in this case tenor solo and male choir. Here I am reminded of similar moments in Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. It really is quite special to hear Pettersson’s choral writing without constant orchestral harassment.

In general, I consider Pettersson to be a dead-serious composer, as I really do not find much in the way of sarcasm or irony in his orchestral works (there’s a moment in the Symphony No. 15, which I’ll get to later on). However, Pettersson occasionally employs a matter-of-fact or even ironic style, which is sometimes a stark contrast of the grim subject matter of some of these poems. For example, listen to the recurring motif of repeated major thirds in A man goes past (En man går förbi). Or the sultry entrance of the violas in Lynch, which kinda feels like a hot, humid night in the deep southern United States where probably countless African-Americans were subjected to unspeakable injustices.

Although I mentioned earlier that this work does not sound consistently Petterssonian, any doubts about the composer’s identity are dispelled by the music accompanying the poems such as The Unrepentent (Den obotfärdige), Che, and the final movement The Great Joy (Den stora glädjen). In the last movement there are some moments of redemptive beauty despite sounding rather preachy with its text-book socialist message.

While this work is certainly more accessible than its predecessor there is not an overt sense of symphonic integration, but this is probably not the point. Nevertheless, this piece occupies a unique place in Pettersson’s oeuvre and provides an opportunity to hear another side of the composer’s gift.

With only one recording available of this work I won’t go into a review of the qualities/deficiencies of this performance, other than to say that I feel that is sufficiently representative of the composer’s intentions.

Now if is finally time to get to Pettersson’s other symphonic behemoth, the Symphony No. 13.
Talk to you then.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Recordings: Symphony No. 12

Symphony No. 12
Stockholm Philharmonic Choir
Uppsala University Chamber Choir
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Carl Rune Larsson
CAP 21369

Symphony No.12
Swedish Radio Choir
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor
CPO 777 146-2

Long-time enthusiasts of this work had to wait a very long time (over 20 years) for the second commercially available recording of this symphony. I remember back in 2004 several of my friends and colleagues in a neighboring lab went to Uppsala for a conference during the same week the SRSO performed (and recorded) this work. Needless to say, I was JEALOUS. Fortunately, what must have been a memorable event has been preserved on disc by CPO, and the results are certainly not disappointing.

Even though I have gradually become more “comfortable” with this score I still think it is quite elusive. This might be why I really cannot pick up on any major differences in conception and interpretation between the two recordings. There are some differences in timing between the two performances, namely in movements 2,3, and 5, but they really didn’t make too big a difference for me. Larsson’s choice of a slower tempo for the second movement does create a greater sense of deliberateness and makes the music a bit more imposing, but this doesn’t make Honeck sound any less convincing in comparison either.

The SRSO plays amazingly throughout, which is all the more impressive considering how the CPO recording was put together from a pair of live performances. The 21st century sound is certainly a big plus in trying to put together a reasonably clear sound picture considering how dense Pettersson’s writing is. The RSPO sounds just a hair more insecure compared to their Berwaldhallen counterparts, but given the technical demands of the piece, they do a fine job.

Probably the biggest drawback to the RSPO performance is just simply the difference in recording quality compared to CPO performance. The Caprice recording sounds harsh and sharp in places; the dense tutti passages played f or ff really sound quite strained, any details (such as upper strings and middle voices) are often lost in the sound picture. However, I do find Larsson’s concluding measures to be much more satisfying, with a noticeably greater sense of rage and defiance in comparison (listen to how he draws out the allargando).  

If I had to pick one recording of this work I would have to say CPO, with better playing and much better sound, but performance-wise the Caprice is definitely more than serviceable.