PETTERSSON: Symphonies: No. 3; No. 4; No. 15. RUZICKA: The Blessed, the Accursed.

PETTERSSON: Symphonies: No. 3; No. 4. Alun Francis conducting the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra. cpo 999  223-2 [DDD]; 78:21. Produced by Burkhard Schmilgun, Matthias von Bausznern, and Markus Brandle.

PETTERSSON: Symphony No. 15. RUZICKA: The Blessed, the Accursed. Peter Ruzicka conducting the German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin. cpo 999 095-2 [DDD]; 52:24. Produced by Wilhelm Matejka, Gunter Griewisch.

I offer my comments on Allan Pettersson (1911-1980) and these two new releases alongside those of Paul Rapoport, with humility and deference to his years of passionate devotion to this music. Rapoport’s eloquent advocacy reveals an intimate familiarity that I cannot approach. On the other hand, perhaps some observations from a less partisan perspective might complement my colleague’s comments and be of interest to those readers
who are themselves in more preliminary phases of involvement with Pettersson’s music. (I am sure that many readers who consider themselves devotees of symphonic music have never even heard a note of Pettersson’s.)

How would I describe this music to someone who has never heard it? Imagine that the ghost of Sibelius (as epitomized by the Fourth Symphony) met up with the ghost of Nielsen (as epitomized by the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies) and the ghost of Shostakovich (as epitomized by the Fourth Symphony) in a strange realm removed from mundane concerns. Imagine that they decided to collaborate on developing a kind of pure musical expression
of unprecedented honesty, intensity and power, as a means of addressing the tragedies of life. Imagine that they attempted to realize this goal through large, heaven-storming orchestral works that made no concessions to listener comfort, such as the use of classical forms or movement divisions, while relying on some semblance of motivic unity to sustain coherence. If you can imagine this, you may have some idea of what Pettersson is like.

I first encountered this remarkable music in 1972, when Antal Dorati’s recording of the Seventh Symphony suddenly thrust the Pettersson phenomenon upon the American classical music public. I was immediately aware of discovering something of tremendous importance, and began to acquaint myself with more of his work. His expression of the innocent, vulnerable human soul, battered by the cruel indifference of the cosmos, produced a
deep reverberation within me. But while all the music I heard left me awestruck by the intensity and sincerity of its conviction, I have found that it has not become part of my own repertoire for voluntary listening. Perhaps some might say that, like Gerontius, looked with horror into the face of God and cried, “Take me away!” On the other hand, perhaps it is simply that the concentration required by Pettersson’s vast symphonic leviathans is more taxing than what is comfortable for me. I suspect that this is the more likely explanation,
as I do not look to art for reassurance that all is well. But Pettersson’s long, single-movement structures, with their many shifts in energy level but with little metrical regularity, are like expansive speculative ruminations that absolutely require a patient receptiveness on the part of the listener. (It seems as though plumbing one’s own personal reactions like this is the only way to respond honestly to Pettersson — any pretense at detached, objective judgment is a transparent fraud.)

These new CDs are part of cpo’s complete cycle of the sixteen Pettersson symphonies (twenty years ago, who would have dreamed of such an eventuality?) and feature what I believe are first recordings of the Third and the Fifteenth Symphonies. The Third Symphony dates from 1954-55 and is definitely not the best initial entry point into Pettersson’s world. Of the symphonies I have heard, it is the most difficult to digest. Although nominally divided into four movements (one of only two of his symphonies with movement subdivisions), these
section divisions are not audibly apparent, through there are many shifts of tempo and motion. What taxes my concentration is the fact that much of is fragmentary and spare reflective rather than active, with sparse gestures mulled over at length.

I find the Fourth Symphony (1958-59) somewhat more accessible, although commentator Andreas K. W. Meyer seems to feel otherwise. Not only does there appear to be more activity in this later work, but there is also more expressive variety with moments of the poignant quasi-chorales that serve as something like emotional oases in Pettersson’s works. But perhaps the very frequency of these affective shifts might create difficulties for some
listeners. What struck me about both the Third and Fourth were the audible traces of composers like Nielsen, Sibelius, and Mahler (those ironic woodwind shrieks), which are much more fully digested in the later works with which I am more familiar (not that this is any sort of deficiency).

For a long time I have tried to determine the best symphony through which to introduce Pettersson, and the Fifteenth (1978) may be it. Its turbulence and massiveness are certainly overwhelming, but it is more forthright, less speculative and tentative, and seems to contain within it, well integrated, most of the elements that generally comprise the composer’s musical vocabulary. Meyer uses the word “harmonious,” while Ruzicka calls it “balanced,” and I would tend to agree.

I will leave it to my colleague to describe the relative merits and deficiencies of these performances. Suffice it to say that Pettersson demands at least as much of the musicians who perform his work as he does of the listeners who attempt to apprehend it. Many have contended that the requirements of the scores exceed normal capabilities and that the strenuous struggle of an ensemble to approach these specifications is part of the intended effect. Conductor Ruzicka addresses this issue in his comments on recording the Fifteenth Symphony. To my ears all three of these performances show both committed, diligent effort and severe strain. Regardless, no one who hears these recordings will fail to “get the idea.” Indeed, I can’t even imagine the notion of a Pettersson symphony played with the neatly polished, complacent indifference that has become the norm among today’s “world-class” orchestras.

The recording of the Fifteenth Symphony is filled out by German composer-conductor Peter Ruzicka’s own “Pettersson Requiem,” entitled …the Blessed, the Accursed, from one of the Swedish composer’s most famous quotations. Ruzicka composed the four orchestral sketches in 1991, using material from Pettersson’s own music and treating it in a somewhat similar, but more acerbic, harmonically unyielding, manner. It is an interesting addendum to the recording, but something of an anti-climax in this context.

As productions, these new releases show real dedication and commitment, with lengthy, detailed essays in three languages. Andreas Meyer’s annotations show knowledge, sympathetic understanding, and intelligence, though they — like the music — demand more than casual attention. Unfortunately biographical information on conductor Alun Francis was omitted from the English portion of the notes.

Pettersson is definitely not for everyone. Many will — and do — find his works too unrelievedly serious and too nebulous in structure. On the other hand, those who have fallen under its spell speak of this music with an extravagance engendered by few other composers (see commentaries by Ruzicka and Meyer if think Rapoport is an isolated eccentric). Pettersson’s works may be the ultimate manifestations of music as a vehicle for revealing the most profound struggles of the human soul unfettered by concessions to formal obligations extraneous to the essence of the expression. For the emotional courage and creative stamina to produce a body of such revelatory statements on such a grand scale, Pettersson commands attention and respect. His work must be confronted by anyone who seeks to grasp the expressive range of 20th-century symphonic music.