1 May 2018
Is this cycle, by the way, more impressive than record label cpo launched and finished in the 1990s? Yes, it very much is. It’s far better recorded and BIS has a conductor at the helm who really crawls into Pettersson’s skin. Although I don’t hope anyone gets the disease Pettersson had most of his life, conductor Lindberg really feels the pain Pettersson must have had during his life. Together with Pettersson emotional pain and complexity (a drunken father, rejected as a child when young, rejected by his fellow composers, rejected by the musical establishment, later made into a kind of prodigal son of Swedish symphonism) and the magnificent playing of the Norrköping orchestra, plus an impressive recording makes a hell of this symphonies. This really is destructive music. Whoever says he likes it, must be masochistic or mad. Or both.
I’d expected this release to be the last in the series, but I think the 2nd violin concerto, the 12th symphony and a titbit of the incomplete 17th are still underway.
The 5th symphony, the start of Pettersson’s so called ‘middle-period’, is an incredible piece. It asks 100% concentration of the listeners. For me the first 2 or 3 times I heard this work I got inpatient the first 7 minutes because tension is low and it seems there’s no symphonic argument at all. But that’s not true. One of the amazing things about this work is how Pettersson bases almost the entire symphony on one interval, the second, it is the powerful emotional effect of this work that keeps me coming back. The opening section feels like solitude in a barren, frozen and sunless landscape. The symphony proper is gloomy and oppressive, and as the piece unfolds these feelings are heightened; the tension continually increasing. The storm does not really clear the tension from the landscape, but takes us to music of mourning before the final cataclysm. When it is over, all that remains is solitude, desolation, and cold. The trumpet playing in this symphony is absolutely shattering and powerful and very impressive is the BIS recording.
While sticking with one large, overall structure, it feels like Pettersson is pushing his content to its absolute limits. A few repeated listening sessions of these works will reveal a unity across the entire piece, repeated use of certain figures and themes. The contour, the structure of the work is built, and there are long stretches of what might seem repetitive, but it’s all part of the overall fabric.
The 7th symphony has a sublimely tender, melancholically heart-melting middle section, full of crystal-clear counterpoint, refreshing cool water, breathtaking string writing – that’s why it’s so popular in the Nordic countries –, but it doesn’t last. That’s perhaps the pinnacle of beauty for this work, but there’s that cliché statement that there’s no light without darkness, and if that’s the case, then Pettersson is the Rembrandt of the symphony, at least here. The light and shadow, the pain and peace, sometimes in seeming direct conflict, makes for a deeply touching, at times even disturbing work, one that continues to reveal secrets and details the more you listen.
If you encounter Pettersson’s music for the first time and you’re willing to explore this very confronting composer, I’d suggest you’d start with symphony nr.7 and this impressive SACD. The three string symphonies (available both on cpo and BIS too) are ‘easy’ to digest.
BIS’ cycle is, like cpo’s, done by more than one conductor: Segerstam and Lindberg. There was a long hiatus (11 years) between Segerstam’s last recording (8 & 10, april 1998) and Lindberg’s first recording (February 2009, string concertos) and Segerstam’s grip is more relaxing than Lindberg, recording technique doesn’t differ that much, it’s consistently very good. BIS did the 5th symphony before, with the Viola concerto, but that interpretation is sublimely overtaken by Lindberg’s. The Norrköping orchestra plays like hell, unbelievable committed! Well BIS, orchestra, mr. Lindberg: still some symphonies to go, thumbs up!, and I’m sure I’ll buy them all (and end with two cycles…….).