by Walter Simmons
PETTERSSON: Symphony No. 8. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Comissiona. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 2531 176, produced by Halm Elmquist.
Readers of Fanfare have had considerable opportunity to become familiar with the music of Allan Pettersson, the Swedish composer who died this past June. Eloquent championing by Paul Rapoport in this and other journals has brought Pettersson’s music and the strange emotional world-view it represents to the attention of many American listeners. (All are urged to read the obituary that appeared in the last issue of Fanfare, and Rapoport’s review of the Swedish release of Pettersson’s Eighth Symphony in Fanfare III:3, pp. 123-5.) Younger readers may be surprised to learn that as recently as 1965 Pettersson’s name was virtually unknown on the international scene. Not until his works were discovered and performed by Antal Dorati and Sergiu Comissiona did the current surge of interest begin. In the 1970s alone, twelve of Pettersson’s major works were recorded; he was the subject of a biography and several films; and a New York FM radio station programmed a 14-hour festival of his music which was broadcast, coincidentally, exactly one week after his death.
Yet, inexplicably, after barely seven years in the catalogue, London Records discontinued its highly praised recording of Pettersson’s Seventh Symphony—the recording through which most people in this country discovered the composer, and one that was touted as a best-seller, in classical symphonic terms. So we are indeed grateful to Deutsche Grammophon for providing this fine recording of the Symphony No. 8 (a production reportedly sponsored in part by the manager of the pop group ABBA!).
Most of the enthusiasm centering around Pettersson’s music has come from those listeners who view the symphonic medium as a vehicle for major statements about basic metaphysical issues and deep realms of inner experience resulting from profound introspection and contemplation—listeners who feel that the Mahlerian symphony represented a point of departure and not a final evolutionary stage. Such listeners are drawn to the spiritual purity of Pettersson’s quest, the consistency of his lofty visions and his refusal to compromise. But Pettersson’s massive orchestral essays are really symphonies only in the most general sense. Rather, they are like through-composed psycho-autobiographical canvases (“My material is my own life—blessed, damned.”) that seem to depict a vast emotional battlefield on which the vulnerable cries of humanity are trammeled and ultimately silenced by violent destructive forces. Unconstrained by conventional symphonic formal expectations such as contrast, relief, an obligatory scherzo or rondo or recapitulation, they pour forth, according to their own inner dictates—long, hymn-like laments and ominous waves of doom interrupted by blinding shrieks and volcanic eruptions.
Whether Pettersson’s essential message is best conveyed through the type of formal vehicle he adopted is, however, a question that every listener impressed by this composer must confront. This is a question, I might add, that has often been addressed to the works of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, and Shostakovich. All of these composers indulged themselves in eccentricities that many have described as rhetorical or excessive, placing great demands on their listeners. In Pettersson’s case, this excess is found in symphonies often an hour or longer in duration, and often without movement breaks. (The Eighth Symphony is in two movements that add up to 52 minutes in length.) Usually they are unrelieved in their moods of turbulence and tragedy. (By comparison, Peter Mennin’s later symphonies, comparable to Pettersson’s in their violent intensity, make far more concessions to the listener through movement contrasts and formal concision.) But such demands on the listener’s concentration and emotional fortitude are not to be held against the composer. However, there is also the matter of prolongation through repetition: A number of Pettersson’s symphonies, particularly the Eighth, sink into long periods of static tonal emphasis through the reiteration of lugubrious gesture-patterns. I find these passages the most difficult to reconcile, regardless of any extra-musical interpretation.
Excess in the service of a transcendent vision tends to generate either idolatry or cynicism. Among the skeptics, the excess is evidence of sham or incompetence; among the idolators the excess is indispensable to the essential message. But that is the question: is it sham, is it genius, or is it perhaps sincere, ambitious effort sabotaged by lapses of formal judgment? When confronting music that assaults one so with its shattering confessions of torment, expressed with unrestrained candor, in a voice of considerable eloquence, one may find such questions impertinent, if not jejune. But an oft-overlooked aesthetic maxim is that a work of grandiose proportions whose intent is incontestably and sincerely profound tends to inspire awe-filled admiration, especially if it is based on a readily comprehensible vocabulary, regardless of the actual mastery of materials demonstrated by the composer or of the actual success of an individual work. The critical listener must not let himself become blinded to the true degree of accomplishment.
I believe that, at this point, it is still too early to come to conclusions about Pettersson, although my own inclination is in the positive direction. We must familiarize ourselves with his works through a number of different performances and interpretations. And even so, the questions may still elude answers. After all, the debate still continues in regard to the works of Mahler, Shostakovich, et al.—at least, in my mind it does.
There is no question but that Allan Pettersson was one of the most imposing and original compositional voices to appear in our time. Whether or not all music lovers will choose him for their listening pleasure, all should agree that it is important music, worthy of the most serious consideration. It is fascinating to watch as the world discovers him.
For listeners who are less involved in the contemporary music scene and are not yet familiar with Pettersson’s works, in some ways the Symphony No. 8 is a good place to begin. Aside from the fact that it is his only symphony readily available (aside from imports), much of the music is reasonably melodic, and in a rather consonant harmonic context—a vocabulary comparable, for example, to that of Shostakovich. Thus, its expressive dimensions are not difficult to grasp fairly quickly. On the other hand, in contrast to the Tenth Symphony, which is notably concise (Swedish EMI E-061-35142), the Eighth Symphony does suffer from the extended repetition problem mentioned earlier. Sergiu Comissiona, clearly sympathetic to the music, leads a performance that pushes the Baltimore Symphony to the absolute limits of its technical and expressive capacity. Although the strain shows at times, the results are well worth the effort. Sound quality is fairly good, but a little tubby. Surfaces are very clean. This is the sort of disc serious music lovers relish. If only the major companies supplied them more often!