Allan Pettersson: Symphony No 15; Viola Concerto. © 2022 BIS Records AB

CD Spotlight

Strong Utterances of Protest

GERALD FENECH listens to music by Allan Pettersson

'... this is far from easy music ...'


This is what Allan Pettersson (1911-1980), Sweden's greatest twentieth century composer, had to say about himself and his music: 'The music forming my work is my own life, its blessings, its curses: in order to rediscover the song once sung by my soul'. Allan Pettersson occupies a lonely place in twentieth century music - seemingly alienated from any particular school, professing an empathy with criminals and outcasts, and using the tools of an earlier generation: symphonies, songs and concerti. Yet more than any composer of our time, he has been able to provide a musical testament of a spiritual longing faced with the existential void that we see in the faces of the homeless, the sick and the beaten-down. Although his music has been labelled as 'pessimistic', it is inherently hopeful and consolatory. Indeed, we come away exhausted but enlightened.

A frightful childhood, then isolated by choice, and later crippled by a severe illness, he remained essentially unknown outside of Sweden until Antal Doráti championed his music with the recording of the Seventh Symphony in 1969, and today one can listen to fifteen of his sixteen works in the genre. The only exception is the First, which the composer withheld, and we are unlikely to hear it.

The Fifteenth Symphony is characterized by a high degree of tension right from the striking opening passage, emphatic chords from horns and trombones above the tremolo of a side drum.

Listen — Allan Pettersson: Beginning (Symphony No 15)
(BIS-2480 track 1, 0:02-1:00) ℗ 2022 BIS Records AB :

Soon an expressive melodic subject is heard from the first violins, followed by contrasting rapid scales – at which point Pettersson has presented the greater part of the symphony's building blocks. Like so many of his other symphonies, the Fifteenth is in one movement, but with clearly defined sections. It was completed in 1978, two years before the composer's death, and was followed by the Sixteenth one year later, the last work that Pettersson submitted for performance.

Only later did it become known that the composer had also been working on a Viola Concerto – a work that, if not fully completed, was so far advanced that it has been accepted as an integral part of his oeuvre.

Listen — Allan Pettersson: Beginning (Viola Concerto)
(BIS-2480 track 13, 0:01-0:54) ℗ 2022 BIS Records AB :

This piece is presented on this recording by Swedish violist Ellen Nisbeth, who also performs one of Pettersson's earliest compositions – a three-minute plus Fantasie pour alto seul, dated June 1936, when the composer himself was about to embark on a career as a violist.

Listen — Allan Pettersson: Fantaisie for solo viola
(BIS-2480 track 12, 1:22-2:10) ℗ 2022 BIS Records AB :

Pettersson's symphonic output is permeated by strong utterances of protest against what is unjust and cruel, and the Fifteenth Symphony is no exception, although its language is not as astringent as that in the Ninth and Tenth. Still, this is far from easy music, and the often harsh, angry and at times uncompromising sound world stretches one's emotions to the limit. Definitely not for the squeamish, but those interested in twentieth century music should not hesitate to invest.

Listen — Allan Pettersson: Bars 748-854 (Symphony No 15)
(BIS-2480 track 10, 3:44-4:32) ℗ 2022 BIS Records AB :

Passionately performed and sumptuously recorded, this tenth volume in this BIS series should further consolidate interest in Pettersson's prophetic musical mission.

Copyright © 2 October 2022 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta







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