Saturday 29 March 2014

The latest recording on BIS from Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in the Allan Pettersson Project features a superb performance of the Ninth Symphony

In October 2013 the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, in conjunction with BIS Records, announced the Allan Pettersson Project 2013-2018

Over the years, the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra has recorded and performed a number of Allan Pettersson’s compositions. Together with BIS Records, the orchestra has made four recordings with conductor Leif Segerstam and, in 2011, a collaboration with conductor Christian , who completed Allan Pettersson’s unfinished first symphony, began. This collaboration has, so far, resulted in three recordings.

Now the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, BIS Records and Christian Lindberg together take this project a step further. They will record a further seven of Allan Pettersson’s symphonies, combined with concerts. This project will be completed in 2018 with a CD-box, which will contain all the symphonies of Allan Pettersson. This also includes the unfinished and until now unrecorded No 17, which will be completed by Christian Lindberg as well. Additionally, the box contains three documentary films about Allan Pettersson.

At a press launch Christian Lindberg said, ’I am extremely happy and grateful that the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, which is such a serious and fantastic orchestra, is willing to invest in this project. I hope it will raise public interest in the symphonist Allan Pettersson and his great music.’

CEO and Artistic Director of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Karin Veres said, ‘We are very proud that we in this way can document the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson’s music and spread his work around the world.’

Gustav Allan Pettersson (1911-1980) was born at the manor of Granhammar in Västra Ryd parish in the province of Uppland, but grew up in poor circumstances in Stockholm, where he resided during his whole life.  One of four children born to a violent, alcoholic blacksmith father and a pious mother, he said of himself, ‘I wasn't born under a piano, I didn't spend my childhood with my father, the composer... no, I learnt how to work white-hot iron with the smith's hammer. My father was a smith who may have said no to God, but not to alcohol. My mother was a pious woman who sang and played with her four children.’ Initially self-taught as a violinist, he later studied violin, viola, counterpoint and harmony at the Stockholm Royal Conservatory of Music.

At the beginning of the Second World War he was studying the viola in Paris but, returning to Sweden he worked as a violist in the Stockholm Concert Society Orchestra, whilst continuing to study composition with Karl-Birger Blomdahl and Otto Olsson. Pettersson’s twenty-four Barefoot Songs (1943–45) and Concerto for Violin and String Quartet (1949) date from this period.

In 1951, he went to Paris to study composition, with René Leibowitz and Arthur Honegger. It was then that he composed the first of his seventeen symphonies, which, left unfinished, has recently been recorded in a performing version prepared by conductor Christian Lindberg. Pettersson returned to Sweden in 1953, the year that he was first diagnosed as suffering from polyarthritis. By the time of his fifth symphony, completed in 1962, his mobility and health had considerably deteriorated.

Pettersson’s greatest success came a few years later with his Seventh Symphony (1966–67), which has also received more recordings than his other works. The conductor Antal Doráti made premiere recordings of several of Petterson's symphonies and contributed to his rise to fame during the seventies. Whilst he was hospitalized for nine months, during 1970, he wrote his Tenth Symphony (1972). His Eleventh Symphony (1973) also seems to have been started during that period.

In addition to his seventeen symphonies, the last of which was also left incomplete, Pettersson wrote two Violin Concertos (1949 and 1977/78), a Viola Concerto (1979), three Concertos for String Orchestra (1949/50, 1956 and 1956/57), a cantata Vox Humana (1974), Seven Sonatas for two Violins (1951), Lamento for Piano (1945) and his Twenty Four Barefoot Songs (1943-45) from which he drew many ideas for his symphonies.

Whilst many of Pettersson’s works have been recorded, including a complete symphony cycle by CPO, I find it amazing that one of the greatest Swedish composers of all time and certainly one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century should be so little known. The Allan Pettersson Project 2013-2018 is an exciting project that will bring all of the composer’s symphonies together in one box set, including the uncompleted Symphony No.17, as well as three documentaries.

The individual releases will take place between 2013 and 2018, when the whole cycle will be issued in a box set.

The latest BIS release in this project, with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and Christian Lindberg, is Pettersson’s Symphony No.9 (1970)


This is a colossal, one movement, seventy minute work that opens quietly with an ascending motif with strings quietly moving around.  A descending motif follows with a feeling of great anticipation as the various orchestral sections weave around each other. There is an insistent pulse behind this ever changing music which soon achieves a slight climax as the music becomes more agitated. As the music relaxes and quietens a little, there is a repeated descending motif but it does not last, increasing again in volume and tension before changing to a rapidly rising and falling motif for violins that eventually rises up with cymbal clash. Woodwind has a prominent role within the orchestral tapestry – and it is exactly that, a finely woven tapestry, one of Pettersson’s wonders. A descending motif is heard through the orchestral sound, played variously by brass and woodwind. Soon the music quietens as the orchestra scurries around with, again, a little rising five note motif. There is a static moment with a repeated string motif behind a weaving of woodwind and lower strings.

It is the woodwind that lead the music on in an insistent descending motif to a curious passage where violins and woodwind play over a hushed, percussion led scurrying background, repeated consistently as side drum drives it forward, slowly becoming faster and more frantic. Brass join in the scurry until a kind of plateau is reached, no less frantic and impassioned. The music threatens to quieten but carries on, with brass sounding out above insistent, repeated violin phrases. A xylophone is heard amongst the orchestral colour and complexity before a peak with a cymbal crash leads to a quietening at last. Yet the strings still hint at anguish.

A steady marching section arrives with upper strings and woodwind weaving around above. It soon becomes more relaxed and mellow as little woodwind motifs are woven into the orchestral tapestry. Christian Lindberg allows this section to be more of an oasis of peace than in Alun Francis’ CPO version. The repetitive nature of this section is relieved by so many little orchestral variations woven in. However, slowly the music again builds in tension and dynamics as the theme is repeated before collapsing into a quiet section where strings play around with little woodwind themes, quieter yet still animated. The orchestra again builds, with brass entering, developing a richer but more agitated feel. Strings pound out an insistent theme against the brass before dropping to another quiet moment for strings.  The brass occasionally appear in the background, a little roll of timpani sounds and a quiet side drum accompanies the strings before becoming more insistent as the music grows increasingly anguished. A longer flowing orchestral melody is reached, intense and very melancholy before the brass point up the tension.

Yet again the music calms and quietens for a flute to introduce a gentle melody that leads into a more insistent version with repeated descending woodwind phrases. Again this is where Lindberg scores in his reaching out for oases of calm, where they can be found. A flute overarches a beautiful melody for strings which is taken up by the oboe and a hushed orchestra.  A rhythmic, insistent pulse tries to pull the music along but fails, the music hovers and the flute is heard again as are the other woodwind.

The music suddenly rises up in a number of brass led surges with a feeling of reaching out as it pushes toward more anguished music that thrusts forward with, again, that side drum marking the tempo. Soon the strings bring a longer breathed melody, a brief moment of relief before the music moves on again with scurrying strings falling and rising before arriving at a static moment high in the strings with woodwind interjecting. The brass have their say against deep double basses. I love the way Lindberg so beautifully dovetails all the constantly changing themes, tempos and dynamics. As the music quietly pulses along, with side drum quietly keeping the forward rhythmic momentum, it starts to build again reaching another of Pettersson’s many climaxes where anguished strings, drums and percussion appear. Though the music drops to a quieter section, soon the music resumes its inexorable anguished forward drive.

A pause occurs with the strings sounding like the ticking of a clock, rapidly beating around which the orchestra plays. The brass lead to a quieter, melancholy passage but the strings and percussion again push the music on, this time even more fiercely. Low strings, percussion and drums lead to the later stages of this work with Pettersson thundering out a slower, forward moving section, almost funereal in its steady beat. In Lindberg’s performance this is almost unbearably poignant. The strings revive the music from its plodding rhythm but become all the more anguished. Violins with quiet cymbal strokes lead to the coda with the hushed orchestra seemingly finding a temporary peace. 

By the end of this amazing symphony one feels as though one has gone through a great emotional experience. There is so much going on in this symphony that each repeated hearing reveals some new, otherwise unnoticed detail.

Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra do a superb job, revealing so much of this work’s anguish and desperately sought peace.

Whilst the symphony is played without a break, BIS conveniently give nine tracks to the recording in order that the listener can find his way through the work.

BIS also generously include an 81 minute documentary DVD about Pettersson made in the 1970s and featuring much footage and interviews of the composer. It is a fascinating documentary that will add much to our understanding of Pettersson the man.

With BIS’ superb recording from the Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden and first rate booklet notes this new recording and DVD deserves a wide audience.

Forthcoming releases in the Allan Pettersson project will be as follows:

Symphonies 4 & 16, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2013, then recorded in 2014.
Symphony 13, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2014, then recorded in 2015.
Symphony 12, ‘The dead in the square’, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2015, then recorded in 2016.
Symphony 14, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2016, then recorded in 2017.
Symphonies 7 & 17, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2017, then recorded in 2018.

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