I am a great admirer of Petterssen's music (especially the Seventh Symphony Allan Pettersson Symphony No. 7 Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra - but not for the weak of heart, or those fighting depression), but his music is the stuff that unremittingly puts the listener through an emotional wringer time and time again, but rewards him with moments of breathtaking - and heartbreaking - beauty. In any event, Paul Rappaport is a music writer that I greatly admire, and I found his review of the three String Concerti spot-on.
"It is hard to follow in the shadow of a giant. In this case the giant is the conductor Stig Westerberg, whose recording of the First Concerto in 1975 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra was unforgettable, throwing every demon in this terrifying music straight at us in unflinching intensity and brilliance. This is a recording on the edge, something you don't live with but live through and live for. It is now on CD, Caprice CAP 21369, and not to be missed Pettersson: Symphony No. 2 / Mesto for String Orchestra .
With an intro like that, you may think you know my reaction to Goritzki's effort. Wait for it. On cpo we have something quite remarkable. This conductor not only holds everything together but presents a unified artistic conception. Moreover, this ferocious music is ferociously difficult, demanding that every player be a virtuoso--and that every section coordinate technically challenging and emotionally walloping passages on every page. These performers certainly meet these requirements. Few groups could.
Not everything is superb, however. This new recording is cleaner and clearer, which is helpful in some places but not all. Too clean is not what you want this music to be, especially in the wild textures that sound a decade ahead of similar ideas by other composers. Goritzki is also slower, occasionally a problem, making, for example, the opening sound too Hindemithian. The extreme contrasts Pettersson wants are not always to be found in extreme tempo differences, for then the structure and intensity begin to slip.
I was astonished to read in the notes that the Second Concerto may never have been performed and that Leif Aare's 1978 (Swedish) biography of Pettersson doesn't mention a performance. Hello, cpo? On page 129 Aare says it took place in 1968. In a monograph on Pettersson available now for over a decade, the date is given as December 1, 1968. Good morning?
Like the other concertos, the Second is in three movements. But its first two seem to look forward to the Third with its contrasts of stress and calm, action and lyricism. Of course, Pettersson's symphonies were developing the same tendency at the same time. The second movement stands out as a slow, anguished expression, remarkable on its own, not just as some precursor to the famous Mesto of the Third Concerto. Here and in the last movement of the Second Concerto, the performance needs more forward drive and often a faster tempo. Despite the same virtuosic playing we hear everywhere in this set, the last movement here sounds wayward. It is a tough job to combat that and make the bizarre ending, which seems to end the music without warning, complete a tragic utterance of bitter struggle. This performance does not quite succeed there.
However, for years having called for a recording of this previously unrecorded work, I am not about to toss this one out. It shows the same high level of care and ability already observed in Concerto No. 1.
And finally to No. 3, whose outer movements have never been recorded but whose middle movement, Mesto, has been available since 1963. What insanity is it that denies listeners the rest of this work for thirty-one years? It takes a company like cpo to complete what should have been completed in Sweden decades ago. But Allan Pettersson was a tough character, to put it mildly, and hated the Swedish musical establishment. He had an unkind word for many, even Stig Westerberg. Still, it is Westerberg again who has conducted the only other recording of the Mesto. It is on Swedish Society Discofil (still in limbo, I think) SCD 1012.
The performance is typical. The conductor's and orchestra's proficiency are amazing. On every page there are passages that you are sure will not come off, but every time the performance wins, in the humblest hymns and in the most advanced hyperkinetic, virtually atonal passages. The articulation and ensemble! The intonation and control! The engineers also deserve a large thank-you, not for clarifying the impossible, but for giving us balances and colors which are utterly convincing at nearly every point. Rarely has such fine playing been complemented by such fine sound. Never mind the occasional thumps, page turns, and whatnot. The skill and concentration are all, and they are there, always.
But . . . again, most of this concerto is too slow. Again it is not just a matter of tempo, for in all three movements, and especially the Mesto, the musical disruptions are many and the balance difficult--a different balance this time, the one that holds the movement together. Despite a better production, this performance does not manage that, because it is too slow. Westerberg does manage it. He also produces a gripping intensity which is not always in the Goritzki. But of course Goritzki gives us the whole concerto and Westerberg doesn't.
I have commented here on the performances rather than the music. Yet most readers may want to know fundamentally whether this music is up to the standards of the best of Pettersson's symphonies. The answer is a clear yes. This is not just a matter of technique, of understanding the instruments. It goes far beyond that, to a realm of art few ever achieve. Despite its problems, this release has the ability to convince listeners of that.
The notes? Proofreading could improve. The contemporary criticisms are valuable, but the commentary on the music is not. The exception is Pettersson's own essay on his Third Concerto, which is included. This is revealing, despite its laconicism, and should be consulted by anyone interested in this composer, as he very rarely wrote about his own music, and practically not at all after this article. The English translation conveys the idiosyncratic style of the original Swedish. (I didn't have time to check the French and German.)
Curious that no one has noticed the Third Concerto opens with a twelve-tone theme. Much remains to be done to explain how these astounding concertos work, and to put them before a wider public.