ALLAN PETTERSSON: Symphony No. 9 – Norrköping Sym. Orch./Christian Lindberg – BIS 2038 – SACD and DVD,”Vox Humana”, Peter Berggren, dir., 69:40 (CD), 81:40 (DVD) (2/25/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:
I first heard the music of Swedish composer Allan Pettersson many years ago in a Baltimore Symphony recording of his Symphony No. 8, on Deutsches Gramophone. I was immediately captivated and mystified at once. Here was a composer with a unique style that sounded vaguely like Mahler and yet, it defied comparisons. Since then, I have heard some more of Petterson’s music but here is what I recommend to you: I share Christian Lindberg’s assertion that Allan Pettersson was one of the most important composers of the twentieth century and that his work has been oddly and unjustifiably unknown outside of his native Sweden. I further recommend that the vast, dark, sad but utterly compelling Symphony No. 9 presented here makes for a very fine first introduction. [Just a bit too dark for some of us…Ed.]
This seventy-minute work captures your attention from the outset with its swirling chromatic utterances in the winds and carries it through to the odd, unsettling F major plagal cadence that sounds almost like a relief from the preceding angst and unrest. Not to say that the Symphony does not have moments of great beauty and even some joy. One of the things that Pettersson was often accused of was stylistic and structural rambling. This work goes straight for seventy minutes with no breaks and no clearly defined spots that could easily be construed as “movements” if there were only a hard double bar or two. The work morphs through phases of tonality, interrupted by dissonance and moments of dance-like structure (tango-like passages, for example) that invade what is otherwise a very long, organic, dreamlike process.
Pettersson’s unique style that often sounds pensive, sad and unresolved is put into wonderful perspective with his life in the accompanying DVD documentary “Vox Humana – The Voice of Man,” made in 1973 by producer Peter Berggren with Tommy Höglind and Gunnar Källström. We see that Allan Pettersson grew up dirt poor, the son of an alcoholic abusive blacksmith, and attended all-boys’ schools as a child that were little more than boarding houses. His development as a musician came up rather accidentally after the boy Pettersson could not really compete with the other boys in athletic prowess or physical labor. In fact, we learn that Allan fought frailty and illness nearly all of his sixty-nine years. Perhaps his own “aged” appearance and a style that seemed to not fit anywhere in the cutting-edge mid-twentieth century oeuvre provided some impediment to what could have become his international renown.
Pettersson is known primarily as a symphony composer – sixteen in all – although there are fine works for strings, including a series of Concertos for string orchestra and some lovely vocal works. Pettersson even wrote some operas, as is revealed in the documentary, but I am hard pressed to find any recordings; even out of print.
The documentary would be reason enough to go buy and learn more about this shy, intellectual and supremely talented man but the performance here of the Symphony No.9 is absolutely stunning. Christian Lindberg has developed a very fine career and reputation as a conductor who specializes in modern music, especially from his own native Sweden (and having already conquered the world of trombone – he is an amazing player). He has recorded several of Pettersson’s works with the excellent Norrköping Symphony including Symphonies No. 1, 2 and 6 and they are all amazing and complex works that are well worth hearing.
I do reiterate that Pettersson’s Symphony No.9 is a long, brooding and, occasionally, disconcerting masterpiece; but one that must be heard. I also think that this recording (or any of Lindberg’s series, really) makes for a compelling, thought provoking and discussion inducing introduction to the music of Allan Pettersson. My highest compliments to Christian Lindberg for his active promotion of this music and to Peter Berggren (who at one time was a professor of video production at North Park University; he may still be) for such a compelling look at this fascinating man.
The engineers and production team at BIS are to be commended as well for such a fine package and I did really find this one of the most rewarding and intriguing releases I have encountered all year.