If you like the picture on the box, you might like the music
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 1 July 2012
This box set gives us the 15 symphonies (2-16) completed by the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson, plus a Symphonic Movement, and a 'Pettersson requiem' by Peter Ruzicka.
Petersson's music reminds me of three composers - Bruckner, Mahler and Schnittke. Mahler in that his music consists of a set of rather large autobiographical symphonies, based on elements of songs written earlier in the composer's career. - Bruckner in that his music is single-minded, in a sense very spiritual (although very much of the 20th C rather than 19th), and constructed in blocks that at times make the music sound grandiose and uncompromising - but to some will sound poorly structured. - Schnittke in that he explores the extremes of symphonic expression - both composers wrote some of the darkest and most troubling music in history - generally lacking the optimism of Mahler and Bruckner - a musical attempt to find meaning in suffering by looking at it head on in all its ugliness.
These symphonies fall roughly into three categories - symphonies 2-4, 6-8, and 10-16, with 5 and 9 being transitional works.
The easiest group for the newcomer to understand is definitely 6-8. Symphony No. 7 would be the recommended starting point for an encounter with Pettersson - a dark, dramatic violent opening section gives way to a beautiful song like section. The symphony is overall tragic in feel and is about as easy as Pettersson gets. If you quite like Symphony No. 7, or at least are not put off by it, you might try investigating Symphonies 6 and 8. Symphony No. 6 packs a heavy emotional punch - the darker and heavier cousin of Symphony No. 7. Symphony No. 8 is in two thematically linked sections - it has moments of beauty, moments of tragedy, moments of furious anger. All three symphonies have furious climaxes - some of the most ferocious in symphonic music - together with extended sections of song-like lyricism that give them an extremely tragic and hyper-emotional feel. If you think Mahler wrote emotional music, this you will find unbearably so.
Next up try some of the shorter pieces from symphonies 10-16 - 10, 15 and 16. 10 is unrelentingly furious and angry, 15 sounds somewhat Brucknerian with its large at times cathedral like sound, and final coda-like section. It is probably on balance one of the most optimistic symphonies Pettersson wrote (which isn't very optimistic). Symphony No. 16 is a beautiful piece - essentially a saxophone concerto - the soaring solo line lends real beauty to this characteristically tragic piece.
The symphonies 10-16 vary considerably - but all have denser polyphony than the previous symphonies and fewer song-like sections - this makes them harder going. And there are those who will like symphonies 6-8 but none of the others - so I suggest before buying this set get two of Segerstam's recordings - symphonies 7&11 and symphonies 3&15 - If you like both discs - its worth buying this set - and the Segerstam gives you extra recording sthat you will nonetheless find valuable. - if you only like symphony No. 7 - get symphonies 6 and 8 and be done with it.
Symphonies 11, 13 and 14 are difficult - dark, heavy, angry and dense - but the emotion is harder to enagage with than in symphonies 6-8 - 11 is polyphonic and keeps its cards close to its chest - 13 is in one movement and is 67 totally uncompromising minutes long - there are few moments of respite to its hectoring, dark and tortured polyphony - the emotion in symphony No. 13 is far harder to engage with than in symphony No. 9 (the other long piece in the canon) - although on repeated hearings a certain eloquence and power does come out to the surface. 14, although relaxed in comparison symphony No. 13 is still a heavy, furious and uncompromising piece. 12 is in a similar vein, but choral, setting socialist poetry by Pablo Neruda. Symphonies 12 and 13 in particular can be heard as long angry rants against the world and its sufferings.
I have already made Symphony No. 9 the subject of a review, so won't go into detail here. It is the longest piece - and although similar to 6-8 in some ways - is far from easy as a listening experience.
I would include Symphony No. 5 with symphonies 2-4 although its last 15 minutes do sound a bit more like symphonies 6-8. These pieces rapidly change from powerful, even ferocious climaxes into states of static eeriness. Pettersson in this period was clearly experimenting with orchestral sonorities - these symphonies at times sound like Penderecki's symphonies. They are difficult pieces for the listener and in this remind me a little of Schnittke's symphonies 6-9 - less outwardly emotional than the composers' other pieces and rather harder going, although valuable. In Pettersson's case although the majority of listeners will tend towards the later works, there may be some who after repeated hearings may find the troubled unified disunity of these early symphonies ultimately more rewarding.
The performances: Symphonies 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 13 and 16 are under conductor Alun Francis - these are of consistently high quality - and are competitive with other recordings of these pieces. I think in 4 and 13, Francis has the only available recording. I have my doubts about the performance of 13 - but I'm not sure whether it could be bettered - it is a very difficult piece. In symphony No. 9, Francis undercuts the Commissiona recording by 16 minutes! - he makes it sound rough and angry like a precursor to Symphony No. 10, whereas Commissiona makes it sound more song-like and tragic like the previous three symphonies. Commissiona's recording is easier to listen to, but I'm not sure whether it is ultimately better. My only real gripe with the Francis is that he does make the final chord sound a bit out of place, whereas Commissiona doesn't.
Of the other recordings - I really like 6-8 on this set - I don't think Trojahn really loses out to Kamu on 6th - 7th is fine (I find Segerstam polished but a little dry) - 8th I really like with Sanderling. 12 sounds fine as does 14. 15 is played a bit too slowly and Ruzicka loses out to Segerstam in his interpretation of the piece.
Pettersson is a composer for whom the interpretation of a piece may make a large difference - therefore you may not agree with my impressions of these performances - but there can be no doubt that putting this complete symphonic cycle on disc convincingly is a major achievement worthy of 5 stars.
Pettersson and Schnittke are probably the major symphonic composers of late 20thC - and listeners need to discover their music. This music is dark complicated stuff, like the picture on the box - but for those who respond to it, it will be extremely compelling. This is really art for its times.
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