Notes and Editorial Reviews
Thanks to the cpo and BIS labels, fans of the Swedish symphonist Allan Pettersson (1911–1980) are now able to access good, decently recorded performances of all of his 16 symphonies, with the exception of the First, which the composer withheld. Under the experienced hand of Manfred Honeck (once Abbado’s assistant in Vienna), and utilizing the combined talents of the highly regarded Eric Ericson Chamber Choir and Swedish Radio forces, this live performance of the choral No. 12 is exciting and remarkably well balanced—not always a given when it comes to handling Pettersson’s complex textures.
The symphony was composed in 1974 as a commission from the University of Uppsala to celebrate that institution’s 500th anniversary. It is
as far from being an “occasional” piece as could be imagined. (Compare Britten’s sprightly Cantata academica, written on a similar commission from Basle.) Pettersson decided to set political poems by Pablo Neruda, from his sequence The Dead in the Square, for large choir and orchestra in a turbulent symphonic movement lasting almost an hour. The Chilean poet was a favorite of the composer’s: in the same year, Pettersson set other poems of his in the cantata Vox humana. As Andreas Meyer’s booklet note puts it, Neruda (at least in his overtly political writing) reflected the “anger and accusation” which are the primary forces driving Pettersson’s music.
The work falls into nine sections, each setting a different poem. The first, entitled “The Dead in the Square,” begins with scurrying strings and an urgency which rarely lets up. The composer’s orchestral fingerprints abound throughout the work: climbing violin lines scale the heights, an aggressive snare drum leaps in and out of the texture, and a busy xylophone clatters to depict the rattling of bones. (This instrument is very prevalent in the second section, “The Massacre.”) An exemplary Pettersson moment occurs in the eighth poem, where the mass of sound clears to reveal soaring strings, precariously unsupported, punctuated by those threatening snare drum rolls.
The choral writing does not feature soloists but spotlights separate parts, primarily the tenors and sopranos. Their song is impassioned and ardent, although in the later stages of the symphony (the eighth and ninth sections) the upper voices of the choir become a trifle hysterical. This is very much Pettersson’s usual practice: his massive orchestral symphonies famously reach a point where gut reaction takes over, where the composer apparently abandons balance and structure to throw himself into pure emotion (generally despair) and let the orchestral forces battle it out until equilibrium is achieved by dint of sheer exhaustion. In the 12th Symphony, the climaxes are not drawn out as they are in the 10th, for example, because the need to set Neruda’s poetry keeps them in check.
The word-setting strikes me as more generalized than specific, although there are some tellingly individual moments. One is in the fourth section, where the choir vocalizes on “Aah” in a grief-stricken falling chromatic line. At other points, scurrying woodwind punctuations suggest a pictorial element. Here, I’m afraid, we get to the crux of what is missing in this production: an English translation. A note from cpo begs our “understanding” that they could not include one “for legal reasons.” Neruda’s poems are printed in Swedish, the language of the symphony, and German, the language of the record company, but not English or even the original Spanish. I confess neither my Swedish nor my German are ready to try for a translation on the hop, but the following extract from “The Dead in the Square” should give you some idea of Neruda’s voice. (I could not discover who the translator was, but it may be found among the “Favorite Poems” of Olu Oguibe, the African-born artist and poet.)
I do not come to weep here where they fell.I come to speak to you who are still living.I address my words to you and to myself.Others have died before. Remember?Others like these, like you, with the same surnamesIn rainy Lonquimay, in San Georgio,in barren Ranquil, scored by the spendthrift wind,in Iquique choked and half buried by drifting sand,along the edge of the sea and the edge of the desert,following the smoke line and the rain line,from the high pampas down to the archipelagosother men have been murdered,others with names like Antonio, like your name,fishermen, blacksmiths, people with jobs like yours:bone and breed of Chile: faces scarred by wind-lash, gauntas the pampas, wearingthe signature of pain.
As you can see, this poem is an exhortation (to do what I know not), yet at the same time infused with naturalistic imagery. Pettersson’s passionate music reflects both the love and the hate in Neruda’s words. Indeed, “the signature of pain” pretty well sums up Pettersson’s entire existence.
It is a nuisance that cpo’s detailed essay about the genesis of the work doesn’t talk us English speakers through the symphony in any detail. If it did, we could more easily accept the absence of a translation. Still, here is a well-prepared, well-recorded performance of a major work, and all concerned, not least those high sopranos, deserve our applause.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 12 "The dead in the square" by Allan Pettersson
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra,
Swedish Radio Chorus,
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1974; Sweden
Venue: Live Berwald Hall, Stockholm, Sweden
Length: 53 Minutes 5 Secs.
Notes: Berwald Hall, Stockholm, Sweden (09/17/2004 - 09/18/2004)
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