Bear-like and unconventional, Finnish conductor/composer Leif Segerstam is a good match for the uncompromising and unconventional music of Allan Pettersson (1911-1980). Segerstam and the NSO continue their survey of Pettersson's orchestral music with this disc, and their fearless performances make it easy to consider these recordings alongside the concurrent Petterrson series on the CPO label. The Third and Fifteenth Symphonies are less frequently played; in fact, BIS claims a recording première for the Third. Also, the current issue of Opus lists no alternative versions of the Fifteenth.
The Third Symphony is in four movements, with a total timing of thirty-seven minutes. On the surface, this is unusual for Pettersson, but the composer mitigates this by connecting the last three movements. The result is a somewhat unbalanced structure, with the heroic and agitated first movement (Introduzione: Andante con moto - Allegro con moto) serving as a Prélude to the rest of the symphony. Although this symphony is an early work, it doesn't sound like an immature or atypical one. Pettersson rejects long-breathed themes in favor of short motifs, which he repeats and varies in many contexts. The symphony ends with one of those extended passages of lonely, angular lyricism that characterizes the endings of several of the composer's symphonies - most notably, the Seventh. This symphony is approachable (but not a pushover!) and well worth investigating, even for those who are unfamiliar with this composer's other works.
The single-movement Fifteenth Symphony is described in Stig Jacobsson's notes as among the composer's most transparent, and he goes on to say that "a characteristic feature of the symphony is that much of it is written pianissimo." This must be Swedish humor, because the Fifteenth, as I hear it, is an angry and violent score, even for Pettersson. Although its tone is more severe, there is little in the Fifteenth that wasn't foretold in the Third. Some composers - Bruckner, for one - arguably developed very little after their initial experiments in the symphonic form, and Pettersson seems to be another one. That's not to take away from the immensity of his achievements (or for Bruckner's, for that matter), however. At any rate, the Fifteenth's insistent, brass-dominated fury make it a difficult nut to crack. Moments of repose are few and far-between, even more so than in the Third.
This is spiritually difficult music that demands and rewards listeners' active engagement. These performances are not likely to be bettered, and BIS's great sound and production values are assets too. This is an excellent follow-up to Segerstam and the NSO's recording of the Seventh and Eleventh symphonies (BIS CD-580).
Copyright © 1996, Ray Tuttle