Friday, August 24, 2012

Recordings: Symphony No. 15

Symphony No. 15
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam, conductor 

Symphony No. 15
DSO Berlin
Peter Ruzicka, conductor
CPO 999 095-2 

I think I’ve said this before...the CPO Pettersson series is invaluable and I thank the gods of the classical music record industry that this cycle exists and is readily available. However, when CPO has Swedish competition in the world of Pettersson recordings, the Swedes pretty much always win.

The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra does not have a world-renowned reputation by any standard, but whenever Segerstam is up on the podium conducting this band in Pettersson, amazing things happen. The recording of this work, and especially that of the Symphony No. 10, are testament to this.

Similar to just about every Pettersson symphony, the demands on the orchestral musicians are extreme. In the score Pettersson indicates a performance time of 31 minutes, which might be near impossible for the string players to execute (unless they fake a lot—see below), and Pettersson was a string player so he should have known what he was doing. Segerstam takes about 32:20, and Ruzicka over 38. Comissiona’s performance (not commercially available, so I won’t be reviewing it here) takes just under 38. The fact that Comissiona, who would otherwise be a trustworthy Pettersson interpreter, takes 7 minutes over Pettersson’s recommendation must mean that the score is unplayable at Pettersson’s tempi, right?

Ruzicka goes to great lengths in the liner notes of his recording to justify his choice of tempi. He cites a passage for violins—one before rehearsal 11 if you have the score, about 3:27 for Segerstam and 4:13 (track 1) for Ruzicka, which is unplayable at Pettersson’s prescribed tempo. At this point we are in Tempo II (half note = 48) and what Pettersson has written really is unplayable. Rhythmically, I had to subdivide in sixteenths to figure out what was going on. Then on top of that there are these 4-note grace-note runs which Pettersson sticks between (mostly, but not always) the eighth notes. Oh yeah, and there’s an accelerando too.

Considering the contrapuntal density of this passage and the fact that the low brass are playing forte, I don’t see why Ruzicka didn’t tell the violins to use the ever-reliable tactic that I (and countless other orchestral musicians) have used when confronted by unplayable passages which really are not heard by the audience: fake it. I think Pettersson was going for an effect here, and perfect definition of each pitch, even if it was possible to do, would not have been perceived by the audience.

Anyhow, Segerstam not only manages to get just about a minute within Pettersson’s timing, he has his band sounding confident and secure in this extremely difficult music. Special mention goes to the violas and cellos, who frequently are playing above the violins, the first trumpet, and trombones.

In comparison, at Ruzicka’s tempos the music, especially the cascading runs, can sound a bit pedantic. You almost hear the concentration of the violins, as if they were beating in quarter notes, and as they try line everything up where it should be. Even at the slower tempi the DSO sounds quite uncomfortable with this music (quite a few pitch problems). Unfortunately I am not getting the power and confidence from the low brass and first trumpet here, although the horns do quite well. Ruzicka may have a bit of an advantage going into the lyrical island, as there he produces a richness of sound which is not found with Segerstam.

EDIT, 12.1.14: Segerstam did exactly what was written. See here. There is one more thing which is worth mentioning. In the final measure of the score, the first eighth beat (with a fermata) is a massive CM7 chord, played by full orchestra, while the next eighth beat (or should I say, double-dotted half note) is the F# major chord in strings only. Although Pettersson does not indicate a breath mark between the CM7 and F# major chords, Ruzicka takes one here (Comissiona does the same). Segerstam does something quite different here, again breaking from what the score says. On the first eighth note of the last measure, Segerstam has everyone except the strings drop out (there should be woodwinds and brass here), and the strings transition from the CM7 to the F# major chord without a pause (as indicated in the score). While Segerstam does the best job (and a very convincing one too) with the final measure compared to his competition, this is not what Pettersson wrote.

I am hoping Lindberg will be able to record the symphonies that Segerstam has already recorded, so if he does, will he follow Pettersson literally?

Symphony No. 15 (1978)

This work holds a special place in my heart, as even before this survey it was one of the handful of symphonies which I would regularly return to. After becoming re-acquainted with the Symphony No. 14 in the past month or so, I have to say that the present work is just a bit less effective overall compared to its predecessor, forming a slightly less cohesive package. However, this work is infused with a beauty (in particular the lyrical island, see below) and a sense of leave-taking, perhaps nostalgia, which is absent from Pettersson’s work this far. The lyrical island itself is enough to keep me coming back.

According to Jürgen Lange’s page, the Symphony No. 15 was premiered on 19.11.1982 (I am assuming by Comissiona and the SRSO), which means the composer did not live to hear this work. Not surprisingly, this work is in a single movement and lasts around a half hour, depending on tempos (stay tuned for my recording reviews!).

Unfortunately I left my BIS recording of this work in the states, but if I remember correctly the liner notes said something to the effect that much of this score is written piano. I think there was also something which almost made one think that this work is gentle. Similar to the liner notes from the Phono Suecia recording of the Symphony No. 14, I don’t know where the writers got these ideas from. While there might be a greater sense of lyricism in the present work compared to some of its predecessors, this music is Pettersson, and there is a lot of conflict.

The symphony begins with stabbing brass chords, a minor, spiced with white-key dissonances (A-E-F-B-C), accompanied by snare drum (snares off). After the fourth chord the violins come in, with a theme, very syncopated. Pettersson now introduces the key rhythmic gestures of the symphony: “snapping” rhythms of a sixteenth followed by a dotted eighth, two sixteenths followed by an eighth, and cascading runs of four sixteenths followed by an eighth. This last idea is very important. Most of the symphony is in 2/2 time, and Pettersson often divides the measures into eighths: 3+3+2 or 2+3+3. Two of these runs plus an additional four sixteenths fit nicely into this pattern, and Pettersson does this throughout the symphony.

The orchestral texture thins out briefly for a short violin solo, accompanied by pizzicato from lower strings. A solo trumpet plays the theme first heard on the violins at the beginning. The cascading runs return in full strings, both ascending and descending. The stabbing chords return, first in brass, then again in basses and violas. The texture has thinned out again, leaving a mournful passage for strings and woodwinds.

Pettersson kinda noodles around with the ideas introduced thus far for a little while; a fantasia of sorts. The tempo slackens (Tempo II), and broad, syncopated brass chords lead. What follows next is just an absolutely unplayable passage for violins (I’ll talk more about this in the recording reviews!), accelerating back into Tempo I.

Coming back to the original tempo Pettersson brings back the main ideas: cascading runs, this time in the woodwinds, stabbing brass chords, and the theme in the violins. A brief bridging passage in strings, accompanied by woodwinds playing cascading runs, leads to an interlude-like section, led by the theme. An increase in dynamic and another broadening of tempo leads to Tempo III, a bit slower than Tempo II. Here we have a brass-led culmination of the music heard thus far, emphatic, broad, and imposing.

Tempo I returns. Over tremolo strings, a solo horn and bass clarinet play a variation of the theme, rising. Low strings and contrabassoon respond. A very brief horn call, and snapping rhythms in percussion lead us to increasingly frenzied music, all based on the Pettersson’s main materials.

The storm clears to reveal what is probably Pettersson’s most sarcastic and devilish music. Trombones play this vulgar and pompous syncopated rhythm; dominant seventh chords.  The third time around, when we are in DM7 (D-F#-C), Pettersson sticks in an F natural on trumpet and tuba, and you can imagine how clumsy and flabby that sounds (how about the third movement of Schnittke’s Violin Concerto No. 4?).

However, we are soon back into “familiar” Pettersson territory. The music yearns and strains as we move to Tempo III. Trumpets and horns lead here; a call over a vast vista. The tempo picks up, an angular passage for brass leads to another culminating passage, as the tempo broadens again.

Screaming cellos holding a high E transition back to Tempo I, and the theme and stabbing chords return. Pettersson looks backwards a bit and brings back the call heard earlier, this time in tuba and contrabassoon. A brief storm follows, a frenzied mix of the ideas heard thus far.

Now Pettersson takes us to Tempo II, this time marked Cantando. A beautiful passage for strings only follows, in the lyrical island style we know and love from this composer. A broad woodwind line offers a countermelody. Listen for the duple-triplet rhythm in the violas, as this soon will become the impetus for moving the music forward. A short passage for solo violin transitions to Tempo I. A plaintive clarinet melody leads here.

The music builds quickly to an impassioned section led by trumpet, accompanied with a climbing gesture in horns and basses. However, this fades out quickly to somewhat dreamy music. However, the rhythm of the climbing gesture heard a moment earlier now propels the music forward. We get the feeling of a slow climb, which leads to a brass swell which doesn’t really do anywhere.

After a retreat the music builds up again, not quite reaching a climax, but fluttering trumpets do seem to signal that something bigger is coming. The tempo slows down back to Tempo II, and the music now moves broadly, perhaps tragically. Three descending chords are heard in the horns and low brass, leading to a truly cathartic arrival on bb minor, accentuated by tam-tam.

A held Bb on violins leads to the next section, back in Tempo I. Although first violins sing a long melody here and the harmonies move fairly slowly, violas, then second violins, churn out rapid runs, keeping a sense of uneasy forward motion. The runs transition from mostly sixteenths to triplets, accompanied by the entrance of celesta, which alternates between descending and ascending.

A brief viola solo introduces the return of the horn call gesture, this time heard in flutes and celesta.  Horns lead here with a long line, doubled by violas. The music broadens again, arriving at another brass-led section, similar to the moment of catharsis described above. The contrapuntal textures are busier this time around, however.

After slowing down to Tempo III, Pettersson returns to Tempo I with march-like music, played by lower strings accompanied by percussion. Violins begin to intone a long line, but brass quickly enter the march and music wastes no time going into a storm. As the storm becomes increasingly violent, a solo trumpet tries to lead us through, but becomes submerged (listen to the spitting sixteenth note licks from horns and trumpets II and III). An emphatic arrival (Bb-F) signals the end of the storm, and if you listen carefully to the bass instruments, you can hear one of the opening rhythmic gestures.

The following section feels rather disoriented, like trying to regain one’s senses after shellshock. An entrance by low brass (Bb-G) try to ground us. Oboes begin an ascent, leading into quick syncopated brass swell. Unison string chords follow, accelerating. The music returns to tempo I; low brass and trumpets lead, the cascading rhythms return, and upper strings play the opening theme.

Next comes a brief section led by a desperate little rhythm played on snare drum, accented by upper woodwinds. Back to Tempo II, Pettersson now plays around with the meter: the music is still written in 2/2 time, but the strong beats might as well be dotted quarters. Strings and brass stay out of alignment during this passage, but the conflict does not feel particularly strained. The entrance of celeste is accompanied by a lightening of texture.

A very short crescendo leads to a full orchestra outburst, led by trumpet. Tempo I returns along with the cascading runs, led by woodwinds. The trumpet leads again over a downward timpani glissando; the stabbing chords come back, in horns and trombones. The texture quickly thins out, giving way to a reprise of the interlude-like section heard earlier. Brass and percussion return with a march rhythm, accelerating. Strings churn out unison quarter notes while muted trombones spit out this quasi-chromatic falling gesture.

Violins play the opening theme as we come back to Tempo I. Tritones are abundant in the harmonies here, sometimes accentuated with galloping triplets. The stabbing chords return, this time with full brass. A solo trumpet soars again over the landscape, accompanied by trombone. It really feels like we are going someplace different now. The stabbing chords are taken up by the strings.

After the final stabbing chord of this series, violins play four descending chromatic pitches (G#-G-F#-F), spanning the a range over an octave. The F morphs into an E, and we find ourselves very briefly C major, before Pettersson takes us elsewhere. What follows for the next few minutes could be, and I really mean this, the most beautiful music that Pettersson ever wrote.

This section could be described as a lyrical island, perhaps almost serving an analogous function as the one found in the Symphony No. 6. However, while the island found in the earlier work is consoling and comforting; an oasis of peace and beauty after a long struggle, Pettersson now takes us to a place much different. The beauty we find here is searing, soaring, and strained to the breaking point. It is as if we have finally arrived in a place of beauty but we are too exhausted and beaten down to appreciate it.

One of the most memorable ideas here is the simple progression of a C major to and F# major triad. While one can detect a clear tonal foundation to Pettersson’s harmonic language here, the voice leading is extremely chromatic, and the harmonies incessantly sullied with “wrong notes.” I really shouldn’t try to over-describe this section of the symphony; its beauty and power speak for itself, and those of you who are already familiar with this work know what I mean.

The music retreats to piano and the brass are silent, leaving just strings and woodwinds. Shortly after we hear the last C major – F# major progression of this section, violas lead in their lowest register, playing a meandering line, very chromatic. Here I feel that Pettersson is telling us that our time in this place of beauty—however strained—is coming to an end, and we must move on to the remaining conflict. It is heartbreaking.

A sudden interruption of upper woodwinds accompanied by snare drum shakes us out of this reverie. The strings provide the same harmonic foundation and progression as heard at the beginning of this section. The music quickly becomes more agitated and increases in volume, but doesn’t reach a climax. Rather, a lone C is held by the violins, over which we hear a solitary bassoon. Pettersson begins looking backwards, re-introducing ideas heard earlier in the work (think of how Pettersson concludes the Symphony No. 10). Cascading runs, moving downward, are heard in violas and woodwinds.

We next hear a solo trumpet, suggesting a wide open space, almost Copland-esque. The stabbing chords return, this time in the strings. Upper woodwinds play the opening theme. Soon Pettersson is recapitulating all the main ideas heard which have made up this work. During the final push to the finish, Pettersson pulls back the tempo, and the orchestra swells into a massive CM7 chord. The winds and percussion drop out, leaving the strings as they play the final chord of the work: F# major, A# in the bass, in their upper most extreme registers, wailing away.

I find the conclusion to this work to be extraordinarily moving. The way I hear it Pettersson is forcing open the gates to the next world, to the beyond, a place which transcends earthly pain and suffering. However, when the gates are open, the light is so intense and blinding that it is too much to bear, we cannot even look at it. Here I cannot help but think about the conclusion to Vaughan William’s Symphony No. 9 or Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8; composers at the end of their lives, visualizing the beyond, the next world, or whatever, in their music. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Recordings: Symphony No. 14

Symphony No. 14
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Sergui Comissiona, conductor
PS CD 12

Symphony No. 14
RSO Berlin
Johan Arnell, conductor
CPO 999 191-2 

We are fortunate enough to have two recordings of this amazing work, which are derived from what I would guess have been the only live performances (does anyone know if there were other performances) of this work: the world premiere and the German performance captured by CPO. Comissiona recorded this work for Phono Suecia on 3-4.12.81, several days after the presumed premiere, and the CPO disc is taken from two performances on 7-8.5.88. While having two recordings is almost always better than one, I personally think that the CPO recording is not competitive when compared to Comissiona’s incredible performance, but I at least one reviewer prefers the CPO.

A major difference which jumps out right away is tempo. Both performances are considerably faster than what Pettersson himself indicated in the score (52 minutes) but Arnell (46:56) is quite a bit faster than Comissiona (48:09), especially in the first half of the symphony. I don’t really think this helps the musical argument, especially when the song comes in. For the sense of strain and deep yearning to come through, one really should take their time here, and that doesn’t really happen with Arnell.

While Comissiona’s tempos give this music the breathing room it needs, the RSPO just sound phenomenal here. The violins briefly have some issues lining up the sextuplets in the opening section, but after that the violins, and strings in general, play amazingly. Special mention must be given to the horns—extremely important in Pettersson’s orchestral works—as they not only have the accuracy but the power to cut through the orchestra. Listen to the horns in the final push in their frothing-at-the-mouth triplet runs. It’s quite an experience. Percussion also have increased presence, and the timpani have the extra bite which is not found in the CPO.

Christian Lindberg, when can we expect to hear your take on this piece?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Symphony No. 14 (1978)

Back in the late 90’s when I was studying at the University of Wisconsin I made one of my many trips to one of my favorite places: the classical music section in the basement of the Exclusive Company record store. At this time I already considered myself a Pettersson fan, but I was familiar with only a handful of his symphonies (this was before Naxos Music Library and I was a poor student). The person in charge of the classical music section always had something playing in the background, and on this particular day I remember finding myself blown away by whatever he was playing. I went up to his desk where he always displayed the CD being played. Yep, you guessed right, it was Pettersson’s Symphony No. 14, the CPO recording.

A few weeks later the exact same CD was on sale for a price I could afford, as it was the copy which was played earlier and was therefore used. Even though this symphony is not a work I would return to with the same regularity as say, the Symphony No. 5, 6, 10, or 15, I always considered this work as one of my favorites. Returning to this work and giving it a more thorough reassessment has only deepened my appreciation for this amazing piece.
Similar to this work’s predecessor, the Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, Pettersson goes back to his Barefoot Songs for the building blocks for this piece. Here, Pettersson uses the song Klokar och knythänder, which roughly translates to “Wise Men and Clenched Hands.” As I mentioned in my survey of the Barefoot Songs I am a poetry and literature moron, and I personally cannot see an immediate connection between this poem and how it fits into this particular piece.

In the liner notes to the Comissiona recording, Leif Aare (Pettersson’s biographer, no less) suggests that this symphony is one of Pettersson’s most lyrical works, absent of any sense of “catastrophe.” I don’t know if this is supposed to be some kind of joke, but this work, despite being more accessible, and yes, lyrical, than say the Symphony No. 13, it is nevertheless full of the same conflicts which informs Pettersson’s late works. I would make the argument that the increased accessibility makes the emotional messages of this work more direct, and in a way, more devastating.

The liner notes to both available recordings mention nothing about the premiere or the circumstances in Pettersson’s life during the compositional process. Based on the score and the CPO liner notes, it seems safe to say that Pettersson wrote this work in 1978. There is no dedication on the score. From the RSPO website it looks like the premiere took place on 26.11.1981 with Sergui Comissiona leading the RSPO (on the same program was a Mozart piano concerto!). As Pettersson died in 1980 it is most likely he did not live to hear this work performed.

Alright, let’s get to it then.

Although an immediate sense of purpose is noticeable from the very beginning of this work, there is also clear sense of unease. The opening is written in 3/8 time, a time signature I don’t think I’ve seen hardly at all in Pettersson’s orchestral works, but the importance of 3 beats/bar will be apparent later on. The violins open the work with a meandering series of eighth notes, quickly filling the chromatic space between the pitches C and G# (we do sort of have a tone series between the violins by the fifth bar). Immediately after this violas, then cellos, play a skittering series of sextuplets. These two ideas are key components of the work, and are especially prominent in the opening.

From this Pettersson very quickly builds up a violent storm. After the first brass eruption the music pulls back briefly. Trombones, reinforced with cellos and basses (listen to the 3 against 2 conflict), play the opening violin line, this time beginning on F. The two key ideas mentioned above soon dominate the landscape, along with the lower instruments of the orchestra emphasizing a 3 against 2. As Pettersson takes us quickly to the next storm wave, listen to the hectoring snare drum (snares off) and timpani glissandi. 

A very brief interlude for solo flute follows. A dialogue for brass instruments (between muted and unmuted) leads the next section, over the skittering motive. The storm returns again, violently, with brass leading. All of the building blocks of the work thus far are heard here in desperate conflict with each other: the opening eighth notes, the skittering sextuplets, and the 3 against 2.

After this storm wave passes we get a beautiful line from the violins, leading to perhaps the most fragile and painfully beautiful music Pettersson ever wrote. With the entrance of the celeste we hear a heartbreaking passage for strings and woodwinds, which demonstrates Pettersson’s masterful counterpoint. The music reaches a pleading climax, then the timpani returns. Following an important contribution from muted trumpet, Pettersson takes us to the song.

Unlike this work’s predecessor, the Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, Pettersson sets up the song beautifully and effectively. The strings pull back in dynamic, a brief rocking gesture is played, and the lower strings climb briefly upwards. The second violins then take the song, with painfully beautiful accompaniment from the other strings. The song heard here has a deep sense of yearning and is far more strained when compared to the original piano/vocal incarnation.

A driving figure from low violas (based on the opening pitch set) rudely interrupt. The second violins try the song again, up a half step, this time considerably more strident. The triplets continue to harass the song. The first violins take up the melody, an octave higher. Although the song leads this section, the orchestra here is an antagonizing force. Listen to the lick played by muted trumpets, which comes back constantly. Violins try to soar, but the music drops back into the lower registers of the orchestra. Cellos and violins play this falling three-note gesture, suggesting catharsis (Ab-F-E), but it is way too soon. A brief passage for solo violin is heard, along with the trumpet lick. The music reaches a peak, led by brass, but then stops.

Oboes play the opening pitch set, opening the next section, kind of an interlude. Ghostly false harmonics from the first violins follows. The song is heard again, seeming a little more fragmented. A solo violin comes in, accompanying the song. A solo flute comes in, joined by other woodwinds. Seemingly out of nowhere, the music quickly becomes agitated.
Clangorous A major chords by the strings (without basses), played in their upper registers in a repeated rhythm take over. Trombones enter with the song. Timpani provide accents on the second beat (3/4 time here). Horns play the opening pitch set, transposed, and the repeated A major chords recede, but the rhythm continues in the violas, cellos, and snare drum, this time in the background and in a minor. Double basses begin the drive the music forward. The trombones play the song again, leading to a real moment: a big F# major chord, but in the first inversion (A# in the bass). The repeated rhythm returns again, but with a twist: the first beat is absent. Trombones play the opening pitch set. Horns then lead us to a major arrival at C major.

Flutes and piccolo play the opening pitch set. After a brief dreamy section, brass lead a crescendo to a series of ascending chords, accentuated by percussion. Most of the orchestra then pulls back, bassoons play a queasy lick alternating between C Major/minor, and we come back to the interlude-like music. The song comes back, played by first violins, while cellos play a long and beautiful countermelody, ridiculously exposed and in an obscenely high register. The music seems to be opening up, arriving at C major on a few occasions, but we still have a ways to go.

After a brief passage featuring solo strings, a storm comes in, featuring another variation of the insistent rhythm. Trumpets lead here. The music builds up to a massive Eb minor chord. This is probably the most overtly tragic part of the piece. An almost romantic gesture follows in the strings: Bb-Gb-F, Bb-F-Eb. This gesture is repeated, now in a low register. The storm returns, along with the insistent rhythm. Trumpets lead again, this time muted. Another storm wave follows, again with the rhythm, this time the romantic gesture is the main material. The music strains for what appears to be A major, but a single chord on open G and D in the violins cuts this off.

Now we are at the approximate middle point of the symphony, where Pettersson takes us in a new direction. Almost everything we have heard up to this point has been in some kind of a triple meter, 3/8, 3/2, etc. Now Pettersson changes the meter to 2/2, a very common time signature in his output. A cymbal crash and insistent, motoric eighth notes from cellos and basses, with additional push from timpani, drives the music powerfully forward. Buckle your seat belts; we’re going for a fast ride through a terrifying landscape. A long line from the first violins serves as our guide. The cymbal crashes continue to come at regular intervals. More instruments enter the landscape. The eighths stop, replaced by triplet runs in the lower strings and woodwinds. The triplet runs become sixteenths. The violins continue to lead, with important contributions from muted trumpet. Soon the violins will take up the insistent eighths, along with a falling chromatic lick from piccolo and clarinet. Listen to how the violins soar and scream over the turbulent landscape. Although I described this music as “terrifying,” it really is exciting and pretty damn cool.

Although it was a fast ride, we don’t seem to go any major destination. Rather, the music just pulls back. The horns soar briefly and try to take us to some kind of summit, but the music doesn’t really take off. The opening pitch set takes over in basses, contrabassoon, and tuba, in broad note values (half note triplets). Syncopated brass chords climb towards something. We arrive at a minor (as in A-C-E)—a bit of a surprise. There is a real sense of strain here as the music tries to push forward, but feels severely restricted. G-D and F-C alternate constantly in the bass. The opening pitches return, first in upper woodwinds, then strings, and back to strings. Timpani and brass take us to what seems to be a real arrival point, but rather, we get a typically Petterssonian string chorale, upper register and very strained. A gentle rhythmic figure, based on quarter note triplets, enters the landscape. A beautiful fragment of a melody, played by first violins along with upper woodwind commentary, is heard. The music builds in intensity until a brass fanfare arrives, hinting at the upcoming “battle call.” Soon it is strings again, leading up to a flicker of C major which is quickly left behind as we come to what feels like an apotheosis—a corrupted C major chord (listen to the Db) emphatically played by brass, with violins, then horns, playing a falling three-note lick which seems to create a sense of finality. A held low C in the bass instruments leads to the next, final section.

Pettersson now makes the final push to the end. Low strings play the opening pitches broadly (half notes) while ponticello second violins play the same pitches in quarter note triplets, sometimes like the beginning, in retrograde, on in varied groups of three pitches. First violins accompany with harmonics. We are next taken to a very brief reverie, painful, almost nostalgic. The falling gesture E-G-F# reminds me of the Symphony No. 6. Ascending triplet runs from lower strings (using the opening pitch set, transposed) shake us out and throw us back to reality. A “battle call,” if you will, of two sets of triplets followed by an eighth and dotted quarter, is introduced by the trumpets. The ascending triplet runs and the battle call trade off. The music gradually builds up momentum, until we reach such a fury that it appears that the music is going over the edge. Listen to the absolutely maniacal, delirious horns as they pump out the triplet runs, both ascending and in retrograde. The music tries to break, as Pettersson hints at B major, but unison percussion and skydiving horns dispel this notion. Rather than taking us to a final apotheosis, Pettersson pulls back, giving us the opening pitch set broadly played by violins, with commentary from the battle call. 

The music slowly climbs purposefully until the clouds break and we arrive at a radiant F# major. We have finally reached the top, but as expected with Pettersson, nothing comes easy. The music is strained and tonally unstable, still striving. We next arrive at an emphatic e minor. Reinforced with timpani, snare drum, and cymbal, the strings (without basses), in their stratosphere registers, play a truly terrifying, anguished chord (listen to the high C!). What Pettersson does next to take us to the final, concluding chord of this work is absolutely magical, if that word can be used to describe Pettersson. Following the anguished chord, strings and low brass morph into E major. However, this resolution lasts very briefly, as Pettersson now begins to unravel the music, disintegrating it. Violins play the progression C-Db-Eb-F two times, a musical expression of exhaustion. Over quietly grinding dissonances (A/Ab, G/Gb, B/C in a quasi-C major context), the music sort of falls, gently but uncomfortably into C major. Listen to how the high B harmonics in the violins clash with the piccolo holding a C, and how the Db holds on to the very end before finally giving up, allowing a pure C major chord to emerge. Disturbing, unsettling, but the only way this work can conclude.

One reviewer on aptly described this final chord as “chilling.” While I hear the core of this chord firmly based in the lower register, there is really no consolation or resolution when we arrive here, despite the chord’s seeming (in my opinion) inevitability. I think of this as almost the antithesis to the final C major chords of the first movement of the Symphonie Fantasique, where the protagonist seems to find peace.

As BIS has not recorded this work, I eagerly await Christian Lindberg’s take on it (and live performance, I hope!).