Thursday, September 27, 2012

Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1979) for Viola and Orchestra
Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Nobuko Imai, viola
Lev Markiz, conductor

For those of you who are orchestral musicians you most likely know that the viola is the butt of countless jokes. If I may put forth my biased opinion, as much as I like the viola, when a viola player is incompetent it is more painful to listen to compared to an equally unqualified violinist or cellist.

Having said that, if I was not a cellist I probably would have become a violist. There is something about its tone, its understated presence, its rich and dark lower register, which I find appealing. In fact, one of the first compositions that I wrote which I am willing to show anybody was a piece for solo viola. 

Which brings me to what I thought would be the last work of this project, the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Now that there is a performing version of the Symphony No. 1, I will probably get around to that piece as well. Pettersson left behind many sketches and papers at his death, including sketches for what would have been the Symphony No. 17. The Pettersson scholar, composer and conductor Peter Ruzicka discovered the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra among these sketches; even the composer’s widow did not know of its existence. The premiere took place in fall 1988 (anyone have an exact date?) with Sergui Comissiona conducting the RSO-Berlin (is this correct?) with Yuri Bashmet as the soloist. 

I cannot remember where I read that this work has been deemed incomplete, because Pettersson wanted to add more percussion to the score. This makes perfect sense, as the percussion which is in the current version is extremely minimal; it almost seems like Pettersson was just getting started with the percussion writing and the percussion which he managed to write down simply served as placeholders for any future percussion. Although there are many densely scored sections, which do a good job of drowning out the soloist, the work feels skeletal overall; whether or not Pettersson had more in mind we will never know. 

There is a certain elusive poignancy to this work. Pettersson touches upon feelings of tragedy, loss, leave-taking, anguish, and maybe a bit of defiance, but to me none of these feelings are allowed to be fully expressed. It is as if Pettersson didn’t want to tempt fate and write down his final musical thoughts, because he was certainly hoping to write more.

The only introduction we get is a low held C. The soloist essentially enters the work immediately with a leap of three octaves, broken up into four pitches (C-C-C-Db). The material which Pettersson works with is very chromatic—the lines often feature neighbor pitches separated registrally, such as leaps of minor ninths or major sevenths. Pettersson soon introduces a repeated-note idea in the soloist; the orchestral accompaniment feels broad but also held back, straining. The violist seems to fit into the middle register of the orchestra, which tends to make the soloist fight to be heard. 

After some crazy angular bassoon writing the soloist plays a fantasia on the repeated note gesture. Variations on the opening orchestral bass line keep the music anchored. The orchestra backs off briefly, leaving the soloist accompanied by brass. The solo line now works its way upwards, more or less chromatically. A brief reprise of the opening viola lick is followed by triplet repeated notes from the brass. 

The music briefly becomes dance-like, pushing forward. The repeated triplets return. You may notice the viola intoning a theme filling the space between F and C# (or a major third). A definite sense of strained forward movement is heard, listen to the violins with their dropping octave ideas. Finally, the music pulls through to a series of three beautiful, ascending brass chords; a real sense of tragedy, like this is the end (listen to the abovementioned theme here). However, Pettersson just moves right on; no wallowing here. 

The music rebuilds in intensity, the repeated note motive is intoned forcefully, dissonantly by the brass. However, the music just stops, and the soloist begins again, reprising the opening material. The soloist becomes progressively drowned in the texture. Listen to the octave-drop motives in strings and woodwinds as we arrive again to the series of beautiful, ascending brass chords. Listen to the heartbreaking transition to a minor and the beautiful contribution from the clarinet. 

A calmer section follows; the viola sounding tentative and exploring. Repeated notes in the strings accompany the soloist. A falling, sighing gesture soon takes over the landscape. The music reaches a brass-led climax of sorts which is aborted. Galloping strings now accompany the soloist, as the music continues on its somewhat uncertain path. The snare drum makes its only entrance in the score; a minimal contribution by Pettersson standards. A new rhythmic gesture takes over the orchestra. The viola line sort of fades away to a low C, leaving behind a solo flute. 

The viola starts up again, with fragments from the opening gesture. A beautiful arrival point is reached, similar to what we have heard after the beautiful ascending brass chords. The soloist leads us to a beautiful major chord, followed by what could be a “lyrical island” in the work. As Pettersson moves the music away, we seem to enter into an anguished, chaotic climax, but Pettersson cuts this off quickly, leaving a solo flute. 

As brass increasingly dominate the following section, the soloist fights to be heard. When the music calms down, Pettersson gives us a minimal contribution from timpani; the music feels like it is building up to something. The music increases in intensity, but does not go over the edge. A decrease in intensity follows, until the orchestra arrives on a low Db, waiting to arrive back to C. 

The soloist plays the opening gesture again, almost a brief accompanied cadenza. The solo line becomes overtly virtuosic, that is, the virtuosity is not hidden by the orchestra. The music makes a clear upward push, but again Pettersson cuts us off, leaving a minor triads played by woodwinds. 

The viola plays on, somewhat mournfully, accompanied sparely by flutes and pizzicato strings. The soloist tries to push us to the light, leading to two beautiful, almost Brucknerian brass chords (FMaj7-EMaj) but Pettersson gives us no time to enjoy this. Strained, anguished string clusters follow, while woodwinds lead. We get one more Brucknerian chord, which wants to resolve, but does not.  

A short viola cadenza follows. The music seems to take on a sense of culmination, like a destination is finally in sight. Pettersson takes us to the edge, but does not go over. He takes us to the foot of another mountain and begins climbing again, but this time, we are not taken to the peak. Brucknerian heights are again hinted at, but left unfulfilled. Strings drift upwards, fading away.

The opening of the piece is recapitulated, sort of. Pettersson then takes us upwards, almost monophonically, up to a high C#, meandering through several pitches but not quite giving us a tone row. The final C# is ambiguous to me—not quite the blinding light of the next world like that found at the end of the Symphony No. 15, but not one of defiance either. Pettersson leaves us without a real resolution here.
As far as I know of there is no competition to the BIS recording, in fact, I would guess that the only times this work has been performed is this recording and the premiere performance(s). Like every installment in BIS’ Pettersson series, everyone involved here does a more than adequate job. Nobuko Imai is an able and committed soloist, and Lev Markiz sounds at home in Pettersson’s idiom. The Malmö SO seems to have no problems with the music.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Recordings: Symphony No. 16

Symphony No.16
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Frederick L. Hemke, saxophone
Antal Doráti, conductor
Swedish Society Discophil SCD 1002
Symphony No.16
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken
John-Edward Kelly
Alun Francis
CPO 999 284-2
We have two commercially available recordings of this interesting work. The first recording features the forces involved in the premiere, which is always nice to have, and the second features the saxophonist John-Edward Kelly and the ever-reliable CPO Pettersson conductor, Alun Francis. What is special about the CPO recording is that it is actually a revised version, but the revisions were not made by the composer himself but Kelly. 

On the first page of the score Pettersson indicates the range of the solo saxophone, reminiscent of the diagrams printed on the inside covers of blank manuscript paper pads and those found in orchestration textbooks. Kelly points this out in his excellent liner notes in the CPO release—apparently the composer was so unfamiliar with the range of the saxophone that he needed a readily available way to remind himself. According to Kelly, when he was asked to record this work, his study of the solo part left him disinclined to perform it, as Pettersson made such limited use of the saxophone’s range in what would otherwise have been a truly dramatic work. Considering how Pettersson loved to use the extreme ranges of the instruments in the orchestra, Pettersson’s use of the saxophone in this work seemed rather out-of-character and he attempted to “compensate” for the saxophone’s shortcomings with some interesting doublings. Sometimes Pettersson cuts off upward surging lines in the soloist and “rescues” it with other instruments, such as muted trumpets. Furthermore, apparently at the premiere the solo saxophone was sometimes inaudible against the dense orchestral backdrop, presumably because an instrument playing in its middle range will get buried when everyone else is screaming away in extreme registers. 

At the suggestion of one of Kelly’s friends, Kelly decided to make revisions to the solo part, namely where the saxophone line can be played an octave higher, thus putting the instrument into its extreme register while also allowing it to stand out better against the orchestral texture. The Kelly recording features these changes, while the Hemke recording is what Pettersson wrote. 

Since it is a recording, with Hemke’s take any difficulties in hearing the soloist can be solved with microphone placement, so at least here I do not have any problems picking out the soloist. Hemke has no problems with the diabolical solo part, being in full control over not only the virtuoso sections but also Pettersson’s more lyrical writing. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic under Ahronovitch plays like a band on fire, and at times it is truly exciting (Ahronovitch actually programmed a lot of Pettersson with the RSPO, I would love to hear the archival recordings). Tempo-wise Ahronovitch is a couple minutes faster than Pettersson’s indicated timing, while Francis is pretty much right on. I feel that this works for Ahronovitch nicely, as I do not think this score contains Pettersson’s most inspired music, so keeping things brisk is a good idea. 

As expected, you’re never going to get bad Pettersson when Francis is on the podium, but again, I think the Swedes have the edge here. Kelly is just at home in this score as Hemke, and the sections where he plays an octave higher work well, although they do not really change my opinion of the piece. Kelly’s tone is a bit more restrained and less soulful than Hemke, but his virtuosity is never in doubt. Francis’ Saarbrucken band plays confidently, but they just do not bring the same level of visceral excitement as the RSPO.

So these are both good recordings of this work, although if you had to pick just one I’m a bit more in favor of Hemke. However, Kelly’s revisions are definitely worth hearing, especially for fans of this work, or anyone who is seriously interested in Pettersson (which is everyone who is reading this).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Happy 101st birthday, Allan!!!

The fact that today is Pettersson's 101st birthday is an embarassing reminder of how far behind schedule I am on this little blog project of mine. I only have the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra and the recently released Symphony No. 1, so the end is in sight. 

I thought I'd take this opportunity to remind you of the major highlights of this year's Pettersson concert calendar. While there are significantly fewer events this concert season in comparison to last year, these two events are not to be missed, and I will be going to both of them.

20 November, Berlin 
Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin, Jan Michael Horstmann
Concerto for String Orchestra No. 1 
Also on this program is Hartmann's Concerto Funebre, also not to be missed.

29/30 November, Norrköping/Jönköping
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg
Symphony No. 9 

Hope to see you at both concerts!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Symphony No. 16 (1979)

For some reason I have always found that the saxophone really does not sit comfortably in the western classical orchestra. It just sort of seems like an oil and water combination to me. Despite this opinion, some of my favorite orchestral works feature the saxophone: Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 9, for example. Ravel’s Bolero, Tubin’s Symphony No. 6, and Gershwin’s American in Paris also feature the saxophone, although it must be said that there is a clear jazz influence in these pieces, and the saxophone is completely at home in jazz music. 

This takes us to the present work, the Symphony No. 16, Pettersson’s final completed symphony, and his final completed work, if you consider the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra to be incomplete. Pettersson wrote this 24 minute piece at breakneck speed in May-August 1979 in response to a request from the American saxophonist Frederick L. Hemke, who asked the composer if he would be interested in writing a piece for the saxophone. Instead of a reply, the composer sent Hemke the score of this work. The symphony was premiered on 24 February 1983 (according to the Konserthuset website) by Hemke with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Yuri Ahronovitch. This work was even taken on an American tour in 1984 with these same forces, through cities big and small. 

The first time I listened to this work I tossed it into the “curious, but not entirely convincing” pile. After this latest reassessment I’m afraid to say that I feel pretty much the same way, perhaps partly because of my no-saxophone-in-orchestra bias. Maybe if Pettersson had taken the same material and wrote a symphony without a solo instrument it might have been more successful. Given the speed at which Pettersson wrote this work and his unfamiliarity with the saxophone (more on this one later), it might be possible that he just couldn’t put together a more emotionally and musically convincing package given these circumstances. 

The symphony opens with a snare drum roll and a brief but emphatic horn call, somewhat reminiscent of the last movement of Shotakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2. A brief echo from piccolo and upper woodwinds leads to slashing violin chords, over motoric lower strings. The saxophone now makes its first entrance. It soon becomes apparent that the idea of thirds, both major and minor, will play a key role in developing the work’s material. I’m also detecting this climbing gesture, heard for the first time as E-A#-D-G#. The first “movement” of the symphony feels like a fantasia on these ideas—while pretty exciting (featuring some truly diabolical saxophone writing), it feels a bit like a storm that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Big difference when compared to the Symphony No. 10, with its very clear sense of purpose. 

A solo violin gently restates the saxophone’s opening theme, leading us to the beautiful slow “movement” of the symphony. While this music is unmistakably Pettersson, to my ears there is a slight whiff of Villa-Lobos in it, a certain melancholy which sounds more like the Brazilian master. The interval of the third is prominently featured in the saxophone line. Gentle forward movement appears in the violins; a string of quietly galloping triplets. With a change to 3/2 the music stays in the same tempo but broadens in feeling. A beautiful arrival on B major quickly morphs to minor. Gentle pizzacati in the lower strings and soaring woodwinds bring us back to Villa-Lobos land. The music briefly becomes agitated, but calms back down quickly. An accelerando brings increases the intensity, followed by an allargando, strained, leading back to Tempo I and the third “movement.”

This “movement” could roughly be divided into two parts. In the first part, Pettersson whips up quite a storm, featuring his typical contrapuntal density and repeated-note motives. Once the storm passes and the orchestral textures thin out, the music assumes an elegiac character again, reminding me of the lyrical passages of the Symphonic Movement. Pettersson takes us to what seems like a V-I cadence in a minor, but moves us away and continues in this lyrical vein. We are soon taken again to an E major chord, again suggesting V in a minor, serving as the transition to the final “movement.”

Violins introduce a noodling chromatic idea, two sets of eighth note triplets filling the space of just a major second. The orchestral texture thickens quickly and soon this idea dominates the landscape. The soloist, however, does not play this idea. A point of arrival is announced by the soloist, wailing away on the theme of the slow movement. The orchestra backs down (but remains very active) to allow the soloist to sing the same theme more gently. As the music becomes agitated the soloist now takes up the noodling chromatic idea. 

We reach the real apotheosis of the work: accented by percussion, low brass play four ascending, syncopated chords in unison rhythm. The soloist responds with wild sixteenth-note runs and repeated pitches. The theme from the slow movement is heard again, shouted out by the saxophone. Low brass play four syncopated chords in unison rhythm, again accented by percussion, but this time descending. The soloist tries one more time to bring the music into the frenzy, with a final recapitulation of the opening theme, but now the music has begun the process of fading away to the gentle conclusion. 

The final pages of this work are scored for saxophone and strings only. An elegiac character comes over the music, maybe even lullaby-like. I’m reminded again of the Symphonic Movement here. The music does pick up some forward movement here; listen to the sextuplets and triplets. A single group of eighth note triplets followed by three quarters becomes an insistent rhythmic idea, leading us to the end. The final bars oscillate between A minor and major. The soloist’s final note is a C natural, suggesting minor, but the final, gentle chord is A major. 

Although Pettersson still had more to say with the short time left of his life (the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra was for the most part completed, and he was working on his Symphony No. 17), the Symphony No. 15, seems like a much more satisfying and poignant conclusion to Pettersson’s compositional life. At least in terms of last symphonies of the 20th century, there’s something beautiful and transcendent about the last symphonies of Shostakovich, Schnittke, Vaughan Williams, and of course, Sibelius and Mahler (if you count them as being 20th century). At the end of the Symphony No. 15, Pettersson saw the light, blinding, but in the Symphony No. 16, I’m not sure what he was trying to say. 

I hear more of “the end” in the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, but that is an entry for another time. Soon.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New recording of Symphony No. 6 available! Buy it. Now!

Although I will not be reviewing it now (maybe in the future) I am pleased to say that after about 20 years, we now have a new commercially available recording of the masterful Symphony No. 6, with Christian Lindberg directing the Norrköping SO. While it does not have the pure visceral impact of Kamu's famous recording with the same forces, in my opinion Lindberg really brings out the myriad orchestral details which Pettersson has packed into this score, and the results are enlightening and breath-taking. It really is like listening to this work with new ears (preview: listen to the passage at 28:07, in particular the low strings and the razor-sharp percussion, nobody does it better than Lindberg here).
Christian has made a Facebook campaign of sorts to try to spread the word out to as many people as possible on this new recording, and at the absolute steal price of $8.98 on, you should get this recording immediately, if you do not have it already. Christian even posted a link to my entry on the Symphony No. 6 on his Facebook page. How cool is that!