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Allan PETTERSSON (1911-1980)
Symphony No. 13 (1976) [66:16]
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
rec. January 2015, Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
Reviewed as 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2190 SACD [66:16]

This is the latest instalment in the ambitious Allan Pettersson Project, in which conductor Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping SO aim to perform and record all of their compatriot’s symphonies. It’s a truly comprehensive enterprise that includes performing editions of Pettersson’s unfinished First and Seventeenth symphonies. I’ve already reviewed 1, 2, 6 & 9 in this series; these have impressed me a great deal, not least for the musicians’ commitment to this often daunting repertoire. All credit to BIS too, for their support of modern/contemporary Nordic and other composers; that’s a courageous position in good times for the industry, let alone in these straitened ones.

There’s another set of Pettersson symphonies, recorded by CPO between 1984 and 2004; according to Rob Barnett it’s well worth a listen. At around £50 for 12 CDs it’s also very good value. No doubt BIS will issue their own box at some point, and at a competitive price. Both cycles are shared between different orchestras and conductors, which is not always ideal; that said, Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony bring to their performances a coherence, a consistency of artistic vision, that’s very persuasive indeed. As a bonus the sound on these BIS recordings ranges from excellent to superb.

In his detailed liner-notes Per-Henning Olsson reminds us that Pettersson kept faith with the symphony at a time when many composers believed the genre was dead or, at the very least, dying. Even then his symphonic break-through only came in 1968, with the premiere of his Seventh Symphony. That belated recognition was most welcome, but the composer’s battle with rheumatoid arthritis was just beginning. By the time he wrote the Thirteenth Symphony the disease had made his life very difficult indeed. Are these works a mirror of his pain? Perhaps, but I’d suggest they're more about a steely determination, an indomitable spirit, than a chronicle of increasing adversity.

Granted, this symphony is not an easy listen – it plays continuously for more than sixty minutes – but after the dissonant outbursts at the start it settles down somewhat. Remarkably the writing is at once whole and fragmented, new and old; there’s an underlying lyricism – hard won, though – and a wonderful array of colour and incident. As with the other symphonies the Thirteenth is dense and highly virtuosic, and this band – who gave the work its Swedish premiere as late as 2014 – play fearlessly throughout. As for Lindberg he keeps the listener firmly focused; indeed, without such fierce advocacy and skill it would be easy to imagine the symphony imploding, overwhelmed by the heat at its core.

There’s no shortage of variety, either; those surprisingly jaunty rhythms, rattling side drum and guttural plosions are powerfully projected. As for the recording – masterminded by Take5’s Hans Kipfer and Jens Braun – it has a dynamic range and level of detail that’s frankly stunning. That said, this probably isn’t the place to start your exploration of Pettersson’s symphonies; I’d suggest newcomers try one of his earlier ones – the ultra-compelling Ninth, perhaps – and take it from there. Even then these are works that inspire respect rather than affection; also, they demand your total concentration if they’re to make any sense at all.

An intense, proselytizing performance, superbly recorded; not for the faint-hearted, though.

Dan Morgan

Reviews of earlier volumes in the BIS Pettersson series not noted above
Symphonies 1 & 2 - Lindberg (review)
Symphony 6 - Lindberg (review review)
Symphony 9 - Lindberg (review)
Symphonies 8 & 10 - Segerstam (review)



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