PETTERSSON: Symphony No. 12, “The Dead in the Square” / Swedish Radio Choir; Eric Ericson Chamber Choir; Norrköping Symphony Orch.; Christian Lindberg, cond / Bis SACD-2450
Shortly after I moved from New Jersey to Ohio in the fall of 1977, I met a professor of music from the University of Cincinnati who visited me. He was very hep on the symphonies of Allan Pettersson and played one for me. I found the music rather dense and not a little morose in character, and so put Pettersson aside in my mind.
Now, revisiting this composer some 42 years later via this symphony, I realize that at least insofar as this work (which I hadn’t heard before) is concerned that I hadn’t been fair to him—or, at least, that either this work or this performance has more of interest to me than his other music did then. Pettersson clearly wrote in a bitonal style which was then considered quite avant-garde but today would be considered a bit tame.
This, his only symphony using singers, was considered controversial in Sweden at the time because it is based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda, an unabashed Communist and staunch supporter of Salvador Allende. Pettersson was careful, however, to write a preface to this symphony, something quite unusual for him, explaining his attraction to the situations described in the poems while distancing himself from Neruda’s politics. He said, in part, that
My commitment in this work is not political, [but that] All of human history consists of man’s cruelty to man…And when the large popular collectives developed, this basic motif already existed and it was furthered by certain politicians into a persistent, appalling theme—that of gratuitous cruelty. But the basic theme existed and exists forever!
One, then, may consider this symphony an anti-“Ode to Joy.” It is more like an ode to suffering and the struggle of the lower classes to achieve some form of parity with the upper. Pettersson continued that although he could “hardly identify myself with the worker who was shot to death,” his “heart was, and is, with the poor of Chile, so like the worker in the third world in which I grew up.”
As stated in the liner notes, the choir sings almost continuously throughout the work’s nearly 56-minute length, “often very forcefully and in difficult registers, which makes the choral parts very demanding,” and that “Pettersson frequently lets the music go against the rhythm of the text.” Although the rhythms used in the choral part aren’t specifically those of Chilean or other Hispanic music, they have a certain liveliness that brings them in line with such music. Listening to it, I wondered if this work is really a symphony or more of a secular cantata. It is not so far removed in form (though it is in style) from Bohuslav Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh.
One thing that this work has in common with the symphony I heard so many years ago (it might have been his Seventh; I really don’t recall at this point) is the use of dark orchestral textures. Moreover, Pettersson uses the orchestra here mostly in its lower range, even the violins and winds, to create a sort of edgy accompaniment to the chorus. The contrasting rhythms used in the orchestra come primarily from the basses, tubas and percussion.
Bis’ famed SACD sound really comes into play in this work, giving a spaciousness to the whole enterprise that I must say was sadly lacking in the recording I heard so many years ago, and for once I was fortunate enough to get the physical disc to review rather than downloaded music files, which also makes a great difference. You simply cannot include the full range of SACD coding into downloads, and having the proper “space” around the two choirs plus the orchestra gives one an entirely different perspective.
And of course, a great deal of the success of this performance belongs to conductor Christian Lindberg, who pulls out all the stops emotionally while retaining a tight control over the pacing and shaping of the score. There’s a certain something in how he produces the music on this disc that put me in mind of some of Artur Rodziński’s better recordings, particularly those he made in stereo from 1955 to 1958. The one thing I would have appreciated, however, was a bit of reprieve from the unrelenting drive and force of the music. Once Pettersson puts his foot on the accelerator, he scarcely lets up. But let’s be honest, Pettersson wasn’t a very happy man, and he translated his own angst and suffering into his music.
There are some wordless falling chromatics in the choral writing during the fourth part of this symphony which deals with death, and towards the end of this section we hear one of the very few quiet moments in the symphony, which he continues into the fifth part. This is the briefest part of the symphony (1:22) titled “How the Flags were Born,” and part six, “I Call on Them” also begins somewhat quietly but soon increases in volume, tempo and tension.
This is clearly a complex work with dark overtones; I don’t recommend listening to it when you are in a sad or depressed frame of mind, yet it will reward your attention with some extraordinary moments. And strangely enough, despite its sad, dramatic profile, the music goes by quickly, probably because there is so much going on, as for instance in that sixth track where Pettersson increases both volume and tension, adding some rare upper-range trumpet passages and quickening the rhythm within the orchestral part.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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