Pettersson Played by Nisbeth and Lindberg

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PETTERSSON: Symphony No. 15. Fantaisie for Solo Viola.* Concerto for Viola & Orch.* / *Ellen Nisbeth, vla; Norrköping Symphony Orch.; Christian Lindberg, cond / Bis SACD-2480

This is the last installment in Christian Lindberg’s Pettersson symphony cycle. Pettersson has always had a strange, outsider’s relationship with the classical establishment outside of Sweden, not only during his lifetime but even after his death. As I mentioned in an earlier review, because the music struck me as somewhat dreary when I first heard one of his symphonies in 1978, I stayed away from collecting his music.

In listening to this, his last symphony (which was unrecorded at the time the professor visited me), I can’t say that the music is dreary in the least. On the contrary, it opens with a surprisingly loud, busy figure played by the brass, strings and percussion before moving into the opening theme, and even here there are frequent outbursts of a similar nature as it progresses.

Yet there is one feature of this symphony, written in one continuous movement but divided up on the SACD into 11 individual tracks, that I do remember from the one I heard, and that was its harmonic and textural density. Pettersson’s symphonies are not really audience-friendly, but now that I’ve become much more comfortable with such composers as Robert Simpson and Per Norgård, I can follow and understand his train of musical thought more clearly than I did when I was young. He was a composer who found a way to fuse 12-tone elements with spurts of chromaticism, tone clusters and even occasional microtones in a linear fashion, but it was his extraordinarily complex instrumental voicings and astringent scoring that could easily confuse the non-musically literate listener.

One thing that helped in my appreciation of this work was the SACD recorded sound. Even though I only have conventional equipment to play it on, the microphone placement with its close perspective and almost panoramic soundstage brought all of the different strands of this score together in a way that I could hear everything that was going on inside the music. It seemed to me not so much a good, third-row seat in a concert hall so much as if I were sitting on the stage, fairly close to the orchestra as it played…almost the same perspective that the conductor himself would have on the podium. Naturally, this isn’t going to help someone who is listening for melodies that he or she can hang on to, but I really got the impression that Pettersson wrote two different works for each half of the orchestra, then put them together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Musical figures that I heard in the left channel were juxtaposed against different figures in the right, and he somehow kept this juggling act going throughout the entire work. Although it is a one-movement symphony lasting almost 36 minutes, it is divided on this disc into 11 separate fragments, identified by bar numbers. Truthfully, however, I wondered if this was really such a good idea, since some of the most extreme changes in tempo and/or harmony occur within tracks and not necessarily at the beginnings of them. But I digress.

As the symphony continued, the one thing I noticed about the music—and this was something that, vague as my memory is, I recall hearing in that Pettersson symphony so many years ago—was that it sometimes doesn’t have a purpose or a direction. It just “is” a collection of knotty and complex sounds. Although it is far from sounding like minimalism, it tends to get lost in its own musical knots…not all the time, but when it does, my mind tunes out and all I can think of is, “Oh, come on already!:

The solo viola Fantaisie is so short (3:27) that Pettersson really didn’t have time to get lost in his own musical maze, and in fact I found this a surprisingly attractive piece, much more lyrical than his later work (it dates from 1936, before he started studying composition in earnest in 1951). Yet, interestingly, although the Viola Concerto is also a late work, in fact written after the Symphony No. 15, it, too is more lyrical and, to a point, less lost in its harmonic mazes. Perhaps writing for a solo string instrument led him to modify his approach somewhat, but in any case I really enjoyed this piece. It should surely be played more often in concert halls, but in the back of my mind, I just know it won’t be. Again, the SACD sonics help one to hear everything in this piece with the utmost clarity, particularly the ostinato rhythm played by the celli and basses in the right channel. These help propel the music along somewhat more conventional rhythmic lines than the symphony just as the often-resolved harmony make it easier for listeners to appreciate all the little details that Pettersson put into this work. Also in one continuous movement, it is broken up here into six separate tracks. In the second band of this concerto, Pettersson surprisingly lightens the orchestral texture to that of a chamber orchestra and again uses rhythmic figures to help propel the music. This is, in my view, a real masterpiece; the longer it continued, the more I liked it, and it’s superbly played by Ellen Nisbeth.

A mixed review, and oddly it was the symphony that posed the most problems for me.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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