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

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