On record: Allan Pettersson : Symphony no.14 (BIS)

Allan Pettersson Symphony no.14

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg

BIS 2230 [1SACD & 1DVD, 52’38’’ & 1h58m] Producer Jens Braun Engineer Stephan Reh. Recorded January 2016 at Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping

Summary

BIS nears the end of its cycle of the symphonies of Allan Pettersson (1911-80), as begun in Norrköping with Leif Segerstam then continued by Christian Lindberg, with the Fourteenth from his last years, when greater recognition did not dilute his music’s emotional intensity.

What’s the music like?

The mid-1970s was a difficult time for Pettersson, not least through the ban that he imposed on the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra after it abandoned its intention to take his Seventh Symphony on a US tour and which, though lifted before too long, consolidated his reputation as someone awkward to handle. After the frequently assaultive impact of its predecessor, the Fourteenth initially seems a more inward and restrained entity, yet an underlying plangency is seldom absent – its expressive ambit centred on a quotation from the song ‘Wise Men and Clenched Hands’, one of the 24 Barefoot Songs Pettersson had written three decades before and whose melodic profile here attains a special potency. Orchestrally the work is not so far removed from his earlier symphonies, albeit with an emergent sense of fatalistic acceptance.

As with all Pettersson’s symphonies except the Third and Eighth, No. 14 unfolds as a single movement in which traditional formal structures are scarcely apparent. It is possible, though, to hear the piece as comprising six main sections: in terms of this recording – these extend up to 2’18’’ of track 3, with its exposition of ominous and pensive states; the remainder of track 3, with its impulsively developmental character; track 4, a processional slow movement and one of the composer’s finest passages; track 5, which combines the process of development and start of the reprise on to a cathartic climax; tracks 6 and 7, continuing the reprise with the ‘Barefoot’ motif at its most acute; tracks 8 and 9, outlining a coda where the initial states are recalled prior to a close that embraces tonal closure more out of resignation than resolution.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that Pettersson controls his potentially disparate and unwieldy material with a sure underlying conviction. It helps that the Norrköping SO conveys this music’s fractious yet communicative expression with precision and finesse. By comparison, Sergiu Comissiona with the Stockholm Philharmonic (Phono Suecia, made soon after the world premiere) are undeniably feeling their way, while Johan M. Arnell with the then Berlin Radio Symphony (CPO, made soon after the German premiere) offer a spirited yet often diffuse run-through.

Further enhancements of this version are the superb SACD sound, the informative booklet note by Per-Henning Olsson and, above all, an accompanying DVD documentary The Song of Life. Made for Sveriges Television in 1987, this draws on footage from Pettersson’s final seven years, with fascinating insights into his formative years and wartime studies in Paris   as may well alter perceptions of this composer. Almost two hours of interviews and images, which Lindberg is to be commended for having restored and made available commercially.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, though anyone new to Pettersson should begin with one of his earlier symphonies (of which the Sixth, Seventh or Ninth all make worthwhile starting-points). Those who heve been following this BIS series, or who want to acquire the Fourteenth Symphony, need not hesitate.

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify:

For more information, visit the BIS website

On record: BVDUB – Epilogues for the End of the Sky (Glacial Movements)

The apocalyptic title suggests a large scale work from BVDUB, aka Brock van Wey, one that deals with the end of mortality. Appearances are deceptive however. The End Of The Sky may in this case be the point where the sky stops being blue and moves to become the dark edges of the universe. Either way, there are some incredibly ambient moments to be enjoyed here.

What’s the music like?

BVDUB manages the delicate balancing act of creating long lasting atmospheres but also dropping in shorter, more melodic loops to keep the listener’s interest high. The music floats on a cushion of air, with a distant voice used for With Broken Wings and Giants Tall. Sparkling Legions Turn to Black uses a far off chant, conducting powerful emotion through carefully constructed foreground loops.

Meanwhile a delicate piano floats over the top of Footsteps Fade If Not Your Pain, the purest of sounds. Long, held background notes create a stillness over which slightly shorter patterns operate – with the addition of outdoor sounds and vocal fragments to create a scene of calm.

Does it all work?

Yes, on several levels. BVDUB creates some wondrously beautiful scenes through this album, conceived on a level that matches the title and the cover image. The tonal bases help, giving the music a clear anchor. This sequence, working extremely well in a single listen, is music that can be taken out from the whole and listened to in smaller chunks, or enjoyed as a whole that literally washes over the ears of the listener.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. BVDUB provides solace from the rush and incessant noise of everyday life, slowing things down, taking in the awesome scenery and surfing the wave of it.

Ben Hogwood

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On record: AWARE – The Book Of Wind (Glacial Movements)

Summary

Reading the titles given to the chapters of The Book Of Wind is revealing. They sound like an excerpt from a biblical tale, as though recounting Moses and his encounters with God. What they actually appear to be is the beginning of inspiration for this album by AWARE, the alias of Alexander Glück. Like his Glacial Movements label mates he operates largely without obvious rhythm and is free of a harmonic base, but responds to the imaginary text using vivid sound pictures.

What’s the music like?

The tale is told through music that is barely anchored to the ground, existing in a cloud that changes in consistency, density and colour. The 14 excerpts vary in mood and reach a natural apex in the storm halfway through. As the music builds towards this there is a bigger scale strongly implied by the powerful third track until he reached the mountain, while a powerful storm tore the mountains apart has almost visible clouds. Gradually the music subsides and reaches a softer place of rest by the end, the last track and went out dipping to almost inaudible levels before hints of earlier  music return.

Does it all work?

Yes, although the music itself is not quite as varied as the track titles imply it will be. It is a very impressive piece of writing though, the sections hang together very cohesively and the wide scope of the mountain and inclement weather are dominating features.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on the whole, once the lasting emotional power is harnessed.

Ben Hogwood

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On record: Kyung Wha Chung – Bach: Sonatas & Partitas (Warner Classics)

Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV1001-1006

Kyung Wha Chung (violin)

Summary

After 15 years out of the recording studio and a similar absence from concert halls in the West, Kyung Wha Chung begins a new chapter of a career dating back almost five decades with this first integral take on the Sonatas and Partitas for violin by Johann Sebastian Bach.

What’s the music like?

Written around 1720, when Bach was attached to the court of Anhalt-Köthen (a period giving rise to the many of his most important orchestral and instrumental works), these Sonatas and Partitas are to the violin what The Well-Tempered Clavier is to the keyboard.

They set a level of compositional and artistic achievement seldom equalled in almost three centuries. The alternation between forms enables Bach to pursue a clear-cut while never inflexible trajectory, with the formal clarity of the sonatas thrown into purposeful relief by the more diverse yet no less integrated layout of the partitas. Allied to this is an expressive range which extends from the poise and vigour of those movements adhering to dance measures, to the cumulative power of those appropriating more abstract models in proto-symphonic terms.

Recorded around the time of her 68th birthday, these accounts confirm that time spent out of the limelight has been to the benefit of Chung’s interpretative insight and conviction. No-one who comes to these pieces for the first time could doubt the intensity of her commitment, and while her playing betrays occasional signs of tentativeness or imprecision, there is never any sense of her technique being inadequate for this music (as, for instance, was that of Mstislav Rostropovich when he recorded Bach’s Cello Suites towards the end of his seventh decade).

Nor is there any doubt that these recordings are suited to the concentrated listening necessary for taking in this music at a single, two-and-a-quarter-hour sitting. Those who might wish to sample individual movements should head to the wistful Siciliana from the First Sonata, the incisive Corrente of the First Partita, the winsome Andante from the Second Sonata, or the nonchalant Gavotte en rondeau of the Third Partita. These interpretations are at their best in the two most imposing works: hence the Second Partita, its closing Ciaccona rendered with implacable momentum; and the Third Sonata, its imposing Fuga rendered with unflagging energy. Comparison with Chung’s 1973 recordings (Decca) confirms that any falling-off of technique is more than outweighed by the sheer intellectual control here evinced throughout.

Does it all work?

Yes, inasmuch that Chung’s approach is always commensurate to the stature of the music at hand. Music which, of course, can take a variety of interpretations – though the present set is notable for the skill with which Chung navigates between the poles of authenticity and that more subjective approach often associated with earlier generations.

The point remains that she secures a cohesion and consistency across all six of these endlessly diverse pieces as is achieved by precious few exponents, and this can be felt to override all other considerations.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The two discs are logically presented as a chronological sequence, with succinctly informative booklet notes from Julian Haylock and a brief statement of intent from Chung. Among recent accounts, hers needs to be heard for its formal rigour and expressive insight.

Richard Whitehouse

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On record: Balam – Numbers (Balam / CD Baby)

Balam: Numbers (Balam / CD Baby)

Summary

Acoustic Alchemy keyboardist Fred White continues his side-project Balam with this disc of mainly solo piano pieces. Numbers confirms his creative versatility as well as a keyboard fluency second to none among those musicians currently active on the ‘smooth jazz’ circuit.

What’s the music like?

Less varied than its Balam predecessor, on which White demonstrated his very real skills as a multi-instrumentalist across a sequence of tracks that featured brass and vocals.

Numbers instead focuses almost entirely on solo piano, over nine pieces whose numbered titles have deliberately been listed in a random sequence to encourage the listener to experience them in varying order.

Although the mood of these pieces is almost entirely muted and introspective, White evinces real command of touch so that timbre and texture never become monotonous. The exception to all of this is Four (track five on the disc), on which White’s piano has been supplemented by soprano saxophone (Jeff Kashiwa, no less), electric guitar, violin, cello and wordless vocals in music whose kaleidoscopic elements feel as enticing as they are hypnotic.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that this relative uniformity in no sense equals drabness. Certainly those who retain a liking for classic ambient piano albums such as the Brian Eno and Harold Budd collaboration Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror will respond to what is on offer here, and rest assured that White’s preference for keeping things austere is a world away from the prettified mood music of Einaudi and his ilk. A pity, even so, that the more questing approach as found on Four was not pursued more extensively: hopefully this might be the case on ‘Balam 3’?

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Fred White is a keyboardist of wide-ranging skill and subtlety, who can only be commended for pursuing his music to regions far removed from that of his regular band. Obtain the disc via his Facebook, Soundcloud or web-page entries and then enjoy the music!

Richard Whitehouse

For more information on Balam head to their Facebook page or Soundcloud. Meanwhile you can listen to Numbers on Spotify below: