Allan Pettersson (1900-1980)
Six Songs for voice and piano (1935)
Barfotasånger (Barefoot Songs) (1943-1945)
Peter Mattei (baritone)
Bengt-Åke Lundin (piano)
rec. 2021, Örebro Konserthus, Sweden
Texts and English translations included.
BIS BIS-2584 SACD 
These are Allan Pettersson’s complete songs. Two cycles in a forty-year career suggest a minor preoccupation, but these compositions are more central to his career. In particular, the Barefoot Songs provided material for several later symphonies.
The Six Songs were only Pettersson’s second composition, written while he was still a student, but they sound much too accomplished to be dismissed as mere ‘prentice work. There is impressive, grateful-sounding vocal writing, and the piano part is often much more than accompaniment. The six Swedish texts are by five poets born in the 1880s or 1890s, so modern verse by Pettersson’s contemporaries. The topics do not range very far from mortality and despondency.
The portentous opening song tells us at once that this is not a stylistically modernist piece, of the sort which dominated the 1930s in Europe and which Pettersson expressly rejected. But there is an occasionally piquant harmonic idiom, and the piano writing is no less expressive than the voice part. Peter Mattei’s baritone is a very fine instrument, as audiences in the world’s major opera houses well know. He is as splendid in the declamatory aspect of the first song as he is in the high-lying climax of its brief successor. In the sixth and final song Mitt hjärta behöver ett litet barn (My heart needs a little child), Mattei’s poised legato and sensitive colouring convey a touching tenderness in the second stanza.
The Barefoot Songs derive their title from the last song of Schubert’s Winterreise where the protagonist stands “barefoot on the ice”, and they owe something to that work’s chilling journey, with echoes of some of the poems’ topics. There are twenty-four songs, as in Schubert’s cycle. All are simpler than the Six Songs, closer to folksong than art song, strophic in structure with plainer piano parts, and all but two of them in the minor. The composer is also the poet, and the song texts often reflect aspects of his difficult life. He had a deprived childhood in a then rough area of Stockholm, with an alcoholic father and little wider support. But he resolutely denied any suggestion that his was a music of self-pity. He wrote “the music forming my work is my own life, its blessings, its curses”, and both are found in this unusual cycle.
Peter Mattei and Bengt-Åke Lundin are superbly accomplished in this intriguing work. The pianist has relatively little to challenge him, but Lundin is always supportive in mood. Mattei’s large emotional range is also not much called upon, but there is variety even within the prevailing melancholy. Most songs are very short, between 0:45 and 3:15. The exception is the ballad-like five-minute Jungfrun och ljugarpust (The Maiden and the Lying Wind); Mattei – and Pettersson – retain our interest through the seven stanzas. There is scope, too, for variation in vocal word-painting, as in Kivlynnte liten (Little Grumpy) where each stanza concerns different, mostly disagreeable, kinds of weather, each given a subtly varied vocalisation of grumpiness, never overdone. I heard these songs right through a couple of times, but they might be best heard in two or three sittings.
This disc is timely. A distinguished recording of Pettersson’s complete songs, by Monica Groop and Cord Garben on CPO, is over two decades old. A more recent version, by Torsten Mossberg and Anders Karlqvist on Sterling (review), appeared almost a decade ago. Mattei and Lundin are worthy successors. The BIS surround sound is excellent, and there is a fine booklet with a very good background note, and full texts with English translations.
Previous review: Göran Forsling
No. 1, Det blir stilla då kråkorna dör
No. 2, En visa i ensamhet
No. 3, Pinjen och blixten
No. 4, Resignation
No. 5, Tillflykt
No. 6, Mitt hjärta behöver ett litet barn
No. 1, Visa i sorgton
No. 2, Klokar och knythänder
No. 3, Fattig är mor
No. 4, Kärleken går vilse
No. 5, Stjärnan och gallret
No. 6, Nånting man mist
No. 7, Blomma säj
No. 8, Vintervisa
No. 9, Liten ska vänta
No. 10, Jungfrun och ljugarpust
No. 11, En spelekarls himlafärd
No. 12, Du vet
No. 13, Du lögnar
No. 14, Herren går på ängen
No. 15, Hundarna vid havet
No. 16, Kivlynnte liten
No. 17, Jag tänker på ting
No. 18, Blomma vid min fot
No. 19, Rymmaren
No. 20, Min längtan
No. 21, Nu väntar man vinter
No. 22, Vännen i Söndagslandet
No. 23, Mens flugorna surra
No. 24, Han ska släcka min lykta