On record – Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg – Pettersson: Symphony no.12 ‘The Dead in the Square’ (BIS)

pettersson-12

Swedish Radio Choir, Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg

Pettersson
Symphony no.12 ‘De döda på torget’ (The Dead in the Square) (1973-4)

BIS BIS 2450SACD [55’40”]

Producer Hans Kipfer
Engineers Stephan RehMathias Spitzbarth

Recorded March 2019 and January 2020 at Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköpping

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Christian Lindberg (presumably) concludes BIS’s Pettersson cycle, with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, with the Twelfth Symphony – featuring poems by the then recently deceased Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in what is a typically unflinching statement of intent.

What’s the music like?

When he began the work, Allan Pettersson had not written for voices in almost three decades and his accepting a commission from Uppsala University for its 500th anniversary was never likely to result in a celebratory paean. To Swedish translations of nine poems from the Canto general collection by Pablo Neruda (1904-73), he created a continuous structure whose texts are not so much set as fashioned into a stark melody line (the choral writing almost entirely in rhythmic unison) as articulates the work’s musical evolution as surely as its emotional impact.

Although not charting any systematic evolution, the Twelfth Symphony does pursue a definite trajectory. The first and longest section, The Dead in the Square, follows its short yet active orchestral prelude with an ominous rendering of the tragedy being related at Santiago on 28th January 1946. Other than establishing an atmosphere of unrelieved anxiety, this also sets out the essential musical parameters of choral writing that does not attempt to ‘clothe’ the textual imagery so much as define and propel the musical content. Hence the smouldering desolation of The Massacres as follows an eventful orchestral interlude (used subsequently to comment on and/or anticipate these choral sections), then the stealthy evoking of human degradation in The Men of the Nitrate and the increasingly wretched imploration of the workers in Death.

The work’s emotional (if not temporal) mid-point arrives with the single stanza of How the Flags were Born, whose fleeting while unmistakable promise of change is intensified in the fervent roll-call of departed heroes in I Call on Them then the accusatory righteousness of The Enemies which is duly made the emotional fulcrum of the overall design. The ongoing struggle is vividly evoked through the hectic onward motion of Here They Are before past, present and future are drawn together in Always – bringing with it the most contemplative music of the whole work prior to the final outburst of defiance. A reminder, also, that Chile was in the process of succumbing to fascist rule even while Pettersson completed this work, whose ricocheting climactic chord of C must have appeared an ever more distant prospect.

Does it all work?

Yes, when as purposefully marshalled and cumulatively shaped as it is here. The pioneering account by Carl Rune Larsson (Caprice) has comparable emotional force but relatively little inner clarity, while Manfred Honeck’s version (CPO) – featuring the same choirs – evinces more character in individual sections but less sure a grasp of its ongoing structure. Precisely because of the way texts articulate content, those who are coming anew to Pettersson should find the piece an ideal way into its composer’s combative and unequivocal musical mindset.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Anyone unfamiliar with the work should certainly opt for this new recording, whose sound and annotations are fully on a par with earlier instalments in this Pettersson symphony cycle. Live performances outside of Sweden will hopefully become more frequent over time.

Stream

Buy

For more information on this release visit the BIS website

Listening to Beethoven #135 – Sonata for piano and violin no.3 in E flat major Op.12/3

violin-sonata-op123

River Landscape Along the Tiber near the Acqua Acetosa (1814) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.3 for piano and violin in E flat major Op.12/3 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro con spirito
2. Adagio con molta espressione
3. Rondo. Allegro molto

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 18′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.12 sonatas for piano with violin arrives in the key of E flat major, oft-used in his output up until now.

Relatively little is written about the piece, which along with the other two Op.12 works appears to have had its first performance in 1799, with Beethoven himself at the piano and Ignaz Schuppanzigh playing violin.

However Nigel Simeone, writing in The Beethoven Companion, finds reason to admire the composer’s work, saying, ‘nothing in these works is more individual than the C major Adagio con molt’ expressione. With its violin melody against a wide variety of figuration low in the piano part, this rapt piece displays some of Beethoven’s most original invention from this period in his career, its piano writing hardly surpassed even in the piano sonatas.’

Thoughts

A relatively simple figure starts the third piece in the Op.12 set of sonatas, based on the E flat major arpeggio and shared between piano and violin. This cuts to bright dialogue and a development section where the piano lets loose with some extravagant flourishes. As with the other two pieces, inspiration comes from the Mozart direction – but the style is pure Beethoven, very open and agile, the two instruments finishing each other’s sentences.

The second movement switches to C major and is introverted, with simple, unaffected thoughts. The second section becomes particularly reserved, moving in its central section to long violin notes and a flowing piano accompaniment that bring to mind Gounod’s Ave maria arrangement of Bach’s famous C major prelude. The tables are then turned, the piano spinning the melody over soft violin figures, fully justifying the praise given by Nigel Simeone above.

The association with Bach is audible in the third movement too. After a perky tune leads us off, and the busy piano part propels the music forwards, there is an exchange of ideas with the fluency and profile of a Bach sonata, especially over the pedal note in the bass of the piano just before the end.

This piece feels like the more forward looking of the Op.12 set, despite going further back in time for its reference points. It completes a very positive triptych of works deserving of much closer inspection than they tend to get.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel give this music a ‘freshly minted’, just off the page feeling. Their instinctive approach is easy to enjoy. Yehudi Menuhin’s tone in the slow movement demands the listener’s attention, a beautiful interpretation with Wilhelm Kempff sensitive in his piano playing.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1798 Haydn – Die Schöpfung (The Creation) Hob. XXI:2

Next up Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor Op.13 ‘Pathétique’

Listening to Beethoven #134 – Sonata for piano and violin no.2 in A major Op.12/2

santa_maria_maggiore_in_rom
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (c1808) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.2 for piano and violin in A major Op.12/2 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro vivace
2. Andante, più tosto allegretto
3. Allegro piacevole

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 18′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

‘Learned, learned, always learned, no naturalness, no melody!’ So wrote a reviewer on hearing Beethoven’s Op.12 sonatas for piano and violin in 1799. Nigel Fortune, writing in The Beethoven Companion, speculates the ‘tumbling succession of fresh material’ in the first movements would have been responsible for this verdict.

William Drabkin, writing liner notes for Chandos and the Tasmin Little / Martin Roscoe recording, notes the extended phrases on the ‘E’ string, and how they add ‘to that work’s brilliant sound-world’, and that ‘arpeggios and scale passages are also well placed’.

Thoughts

There is a cheeky grin on Beethoven’s face from the outset as his main tune appears to have a lot of ‘wrong’ notes in it. He deliberately leans on those notes to create an amusing and fresh dialogue between piano and violin, who stick closely together as they do on the previous work.

After these frivolities the second movement is more thoughtful and reserved, set in the minor key. A solemn introduction from the piano is followed by a plaintive violin melody. This feels the more ‘Mozartean’ of the three movements, A minor being a favoured key of Mozart.

From here Beethoven returns to the light-hearted mood of the first movement, with a triple-time lilt offering the spirit of the dance. It is attractive with the outright cheekiness of the melody we heard before.

This second sonata is an attractive piece, bright as a spring day thanks to the writing for violin. It is easy to imagine Beethoven hamming up the cheeky tune in the first movement, perhaps craving the mildly outraged review he got. There would be many more!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

Zimmermann and Helmchen deliver a sparkling performance of this work, enjoying the humour of the first movement. Seiler and van Immerseel, too, give a winsome account, with effective lack of vibrato from the violinist in the second movement. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka enjoy the bright sound Beethoven assigns to his instrumentalists.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1798 Haydn – Solo e pensoso, Hob.XXIVb:20

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.2 in A major Op.12/2

Listening to Beethoven #133 – Sonata for piano and violin no.1 in D major Op.12/1

joseph-anton-koch-wasserfall-im-berner-oberland-1796
Waterfall in the Bern Highlands (1796) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.1 for piano and violin in D major Op.12/1 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro con brio
2. Tema con variazioni. Andante con moto
3. Rondo. Allegro

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 20′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first venture into the world of the violin sonata needs a few qualifiers. Firstly, the three works collected together as Op.12 were published in 1798 as Three Sonatas for keyboard with a violin, dedicated to his teacher Salieri. They were following Mozart’s convention where the keyboard is still given primary billing – but as the music shows, the tables were definitely beginning to turn in favour of the stringed instrument, just as they were in the two sonatas for keyboard and cello published as Op.5.

The verdict among musicologists is generally that Beethoven is sticking closely to Mozart’s style of writing in these pieces – and indeed that they might be playing it too safe. Daniel Heartz certainly thinks so, and given the detail he invests in Beethoven’s works it is surprising to see them dismissed with a relatively curt verdict. For him the Op.12 sonatas are ‘comparatively tame’. They are said to be indebted to Mozart’s works in the genre. Nevertheless they lack gripping ideas’.

Elsewhere praise is more forthcoming. Richard Bratby, writing for the recording on Signum Classics from Tasmin Waley-Cohen and Huw Watkins, declares that ‘far from being constrained by Mozart’s model, Beethoven had given it Romantic wings’. He enjoys the ‘winsome theme’ given to the second movement, on which the composer writes four variations, and the ‘jig-like finale’ with its ‘subversive rhythmic games worthy (though Beethoven would never have conceded it) of Haydn himself.

Thoughts

A new form for Beethoven – and one that he approaches with characteristic vigour. The first of what would be twelve published sonatas for the combination of piano and violin is enjoyably upbeat and full of melodies – and concise, too, as the composer keeps his musical arguments to the point.

That said, the first movement is quite a sizable structure, beginning with a flourish from both instruments that sets a sunny mood and the close musical relationship between the two instruments. Beethoven, who played the piano with violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (quartet leader for Prince Lichnowsky) in the early performances, is immediately at home

The theme and variations of the second movement are a familiar tactic but freshly employed, especially when the third of the four variations moves into an explosive section in the minor key. Beethoven, an acknowledged master of the variation form, is still finding new ways of pushing himself.

The third movement has the best tune, and it’s a surprisingly angular one, with big melodic leaps – but it stays in the head, helped by the repetitions demanded by the Rondo form. Beethoven is off and running in the violin sonata form, and though Mozart is undoubtedly an influence, the overall voice is unique.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

The above is only a snapshot of a remarkably high-level discography for these sonatas, with a wide variety of approaches. Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff have a wonderfully close rapport and obvious enjoyment of the music. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka are brightly lit on an older Supraphon recording, which is brilliantly played if a little too ‘full-on’ at times.

The newest recording, from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen, has a youthful vigour while the only period instrument example here, from Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel, has an exciting cut and thrust.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1798 Haydn – Solo e pensoso, Hob.XXIVb:20

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.2 in A major Op.12/2

Igor Stravinsky – three personal favourites on the 50th anniversary of his death

by Ben Hogwood

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky was a true revolutionary, and at Arcana we are looking forward to exploring the music behind that revolutionary voice later on in his anniversary year.

For now, here are three personal favourites of mine. The first is the ballet Petrushka, written in 1911 when Stravinsky was emerging from the influence of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. This was the piece that switched me on to the composer’s colourful and descriptive sound world, highlighting his thoroughly original harmonic thinking:

The second is a much later ballet, Agon, written in America in 1957. By this time Stravinsky had explored a number of different styles, and was beginning to push the boundaries of tonality along with a new, more austere form of orchestration. In spite of that, there is an appealing warmth to the sparse textures of this, his final ballet:

Finally, a true favourite – the Symphony of Psalms. I was fortunate enough to play the cello in a performance of this and I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable 25 minutes of my musical life. The first chord is quite unlike anything I had heard before, but as the piece progresses Stravinsky’s use of the choir and orchestra is highly unusual for anything written in 1930, culminating in a wonderful, meditative Laudate Dominum that could easily go on for eternity. This performance conducted by Pierre Boulez is one of the best:

Stay with Arcana for some exciting explorations of Stravinsky later in 2021, but for now raise a toast to a wholly original voice.