Déjà Review: this review was first published in February 1999 and the recording is still available.

pettersson symphonies cpo

Allan Pettersson (1911-80) 
Symphony No. 10 (1970-72)
Symphony No. 11 (1973)
Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR/Alun Francis
Recording details not available
CPO 999 285-2 [52]

My initiation into Pettersson’s world was not an encouraging one. In 1979, scanning the stacks of Scandinavian LPs in Harold Moores, I bought the Swedish Society Discofil LP of the second symphony. I am afraid that to this day I cannot gain much from this work. I must be at fault because, of all the symphonies, it was No 2 which Paul Rapoport chose in his valuable ‘signposts’ book Opus Est (Kahn & Averill, 1981?). Later I was completely won over by the seventh symphony which I commend strongly to everyone for what I can only describe as its sustained despairing beauty.

CPO have methodically been recording the complete cycle using a variety of conductors and orchestras. No 10 is a whirlwind of despair and violence spanning 27 minutes. It could not have been written without Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Scriabin’s wilder extremes, nor without Shostakovich’s bleaker symphonies but really the sound is very much Pettersson’s own. It is not atonal and great themes do rear up constantly through the hammering, screaming agonised brass and certainly the crippled humanity and broken splendour of the music is accessible. An almost Bach-like theme winds in and out of the last half of the symphony.

The eleventh symphony runs for 25 minutes. It opens in gentle spirit but soon feels the call of Gehenna. It is turbulent music but without the sustained drive of its predecessor. Once again great striding themes claw heavenwards through oceans of strident clamorous sound. One of these themes closes the symphony which ends as if cut off in mid-step: not for Pettersson any conventional finishing flourish.

How can one judge performance of this music? How much of a performance history is there? In any event all seems as it should be. Alun Francis’s dedication to the cause is clear. He has recorded for CPO Pettersson 2 3 4 5 9 13 and 16! I wish the BBC had made more use of him and indeed other conductors like Stanley Pope. As it is he has recorded Casella, Dohnanyi, Searle, Toch and Wolf-Ferrari for CPO along with much else. His radio tape of Hovhaness Concerto No 7 is well worth finding. These CPO recordings (1993 and 1994 respectively) are rich and fully three-dimensional. I stress this because some may worry about the presumed radio provenance of the tapes. CPO have been humane in both the symphonies providing scrupulously subdivided tracks linked to particular bars in the score: five for each of the symphonies.

Excellent notes by Andreas Meyer plus a chronology and the composer’s marginalia from the 10th symphony.

Fine recordings. Short value I suppose but these are accessible short single movement introductions to the man. If neither has the blasted splendour of the seventh symphony they are nevertheless deeply impressing pieces.

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