Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grüsse aus Berlin!

It’s always nice coming back to Berlin. Just a little less than a year ago I had the time of my life as a cellist and musician playing Pettersson on the stage of the Berliner Philharmonie, one of the great stages in the world of classical music. This time around, it was not to play Pettersson, but to hear it live in concert. Last night in the chamber music hall of the Philharmonie the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin played the Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra under the direction of Jan Michael Horstmann. 

Many of you might know, especially my German readers, that next to Christian Lindberg probably no one else has done as much for Pettersson’s music as Horstmann. In the past three seasons he has programmed three different Pettersson orchestral works: the Symphony No. 7, the Concerto for Violin No. 2 and the work played last night. I cannot wait to find out what else he has planned. 
As you can see from the photo, the program was about half baroque/classical and 20th century. I really was only interested in the Hartmann (which went very well) and the Pettersson, but I did watch the very first work on the program, which suggested that this orchestra was quite accomplished. 

Even though this isn’t quite the appropriate analogy, once the Pettersson got started I got the impression that the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin was both outnumbered and outgunned. With a string complement of 4-4-3-2-1, you’re not going to get that sound of massed orchestral strings which I think Pettersson had in mind. One section which made this glaringly obvious was the transition between the first and second movements. Two cellos and a single bass slashing away on a low E will not have the same effect as 12 cellos and 8 basses, or even half that amount.

After this concert, I have had the great fortune of having seen a Pettersson orchestral work performed live five times. Each performance reinforces the fact that Pettersson really demanded a lot technically from the musicians, and couple this with the almost definite likelihood that any given orchestra outside of Sweden will be playing Pettersson for the first time. Extreme difficulty and unfamiliarity do not make a good combination. And so it was the case here. While the orchestra put on a valiant effort, this piece might have been too much, at least with the rehearsal time they had. Intonation and ensemble were pretty shaky throughout. There was a sense of tentativeness as well: the sighing motive of a falling half step in the first movement, or the stabbing fourths of the second, need to be terrifying. Nevertheless,  there was certainly a sense of deep commitment to the cause, especially on the part of Horstmann.  

One thing which I found curious was Horstmann’s choice of tempo in the first movement. I have never seen the score of this work, but based on Pettersson’s writings and the overall nature of the piece, I would guess that in the outer movements Pettersson wanted things to move along at quite a brisk pace. At least according to Michael Kube’s research in the liner notes of the BIS release of the first two string concertos, Pettersson said that the tempos in the first concerto should not be reduced to try to get every detail “pedantically” correct. I found the first movement of last night’s performance quite slow (I also found Horstmann’s performance of the Symphony No. 7 in 2010 also on the slow side). However, the last two movements went quite well, despite the problems mentioned above. The repeated D naturals in the second movement were played with nightmarish insistence and intensity, which was exactly the intended effect. Special mention goes to the section leaders, who played wonderfully in their solos.

Next week it’s Norrköping for the Symphony No. 9! I’ll let you know how that goes as well.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Dear Friends,

Over the next few weeks there will be two concerts featuring Pettersson's music (and one featuring another important composer), which are the ideal way to brighten up these cold and gloomy days in Northern Europe (that was sarcasm). 

On 16 November in Tallinn, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Andres Mustonen will be performing Schnittke's Concerto for Violoncello No. 1, a major work of the 20th century cello concerto repertoire. While Schnittke was working on this piece, he suffered his first stroke and entered a coma. Although it is a great piece in its own right, one can imagine the journey into darkness and suffering, and also the ecstatic, delerius return to light and life. The soloist in this performance will be none other than the great Natalia Gutman, the cellist who premiered the work about 25 years ago. If you are in the neighborhood, this is not to be missed. 

On 20 November in Berlin the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin will be performing both Pettersson's Concerto for String Orchestra No. 1 and Hartmann's Concerto Funebre. This should be a moving evening of great emotional power, listening to these two heavyweight (and too often neglected) symphonists  of the 20th century, who both wrote defiant music which raged against the injustices of this world. The concert will be conducted by Jan Michael Horstmann, who in the past three years has programmed three different Pettersson works. In addition to the Symphony No. 7 in 2010, last year he performed the Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra, both with his own band, the Mittelsächsische Philharmonie. Here's hoping that Maestro Horstmann's career continues to rise and he can bring his truly committed Pettersson advocacy to even larger and more important stages. How about the Symphony No. 5 for next year!?

On 29/30 November in Norrköping/Linnköping comes the major Pettersson event of the year. Christian Lindberg will continue his BIS Pettersson cycle by performing the Symphony No. 9 with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. Out of all the Pettersson symphonies, I would argue that this one comes in at the number 2 or 3 spot in terms of audience (and orchestra) unfriendliness. If you are a fan of this work (and I don't think there are many of us!) this is a not-to-miss event, because people are not exactly lining up to program this piece. 

I'm really curious to hear what tempos Lindberg decides to take. In the score Pettersson indicates a time of about 65-70 minutes, while Commisiona's premiere recording of the work takes around 85 minutes. I'll admit that I had gotten quite used to Francis' take (around 67 minutes) before listening to the Commisiona for the first time, and I found the latter to be way too slow, especially for a work like this. Although I find this symphony to be effective in a kinda clumsy, unconventional way, Pettersson does spin notes here, and I think the tempos do need to move along. We'll see.

I'll be at all of the concerts above, so contact me if you'll be there!