To most international listeners Allan Pettersson is, I suppose, synonymous as the composer of 17 symphonies, most of them long and not always easy to digest. In spite of this he became an esteemed composer during the last decade of his life. The breakthrough was the release of his seventh symphony in 1969 in a bestselling recording with Antal Dorati conducting. His 30 songs belong to his earliest works and show a side of him far removed from his symphonic oeuvre. They are intimate, mostly low-voiced and the texts circle around pain, death, longing. The six songs from 1935 were not meant to be published at all. They surfaced only a few years before his death when a music journalist from Swedish Radio visited him in his apartment happened to open a drawer in his desk. There he found a bunch of manuscripts, which Pettersson reluctantly allowed him to look through and it then took some persuasion to have them performed and recorded. The texts are by Swedish and Finnish poets and the style of the music shows influences from early 20th century European composers. Without searching for possible models they are attractive in their own right and since this is now the third recording of them I have had rich opportunities to come to terms with them.
Those who don’t know his symphonies, and fight shy of long, demanding orchestral works from the second half of the 20th century, are advised to forget that Pettersson was one of the great modernists during that period, and indulge in some of the most beautiful songs that were created in the previous century. Göran Forsling, MusicWeb-International
Swedish composer Allan Pettersson is not best known for his songs. If he attracts acclaim - and he should - then it attaches to his orchestral works: the sixteen symphonies, two violin concertos and the concertos for string orchestra. With that accepted, his Barefoot Songs like the earlier Six Songs are determinedly tonal. They recall and are inspired by his poverty-stricken childhood and have always had a biographical profile amongst Pettersson enthusiasts. In the early days these were heard on LP alongside his symphonies. They are after all a less expensive proposition to perform and record. On top of that they have a relationship to the symphonies.
The Six Songs deal with loneliness and destiny, fate and death - all ripely attractive to this composer. They set Swedish poets in words addressing the same subject matter as the Barefoot Songs.
The Barefoot Songs, to words by Pettersson, relate to his childhood in which cold, hunger, indifference, violence and alcoholism are the bleak themes. These are songs of childhood but there is no scintilla of Disney here. The melodic material is however disarmingly engaging even if the subject matter remains locked into simple domestic scenes including the schoolroom and the family living room. Their honeyed melodic ways would have made them ‘naturals’ for Jussi Björling but as far as I know he never tackled any of them. There are some childlike dance elements here too. An example can be found in Mother Is Poor. Privation echoing that of Dickens’ East End of London lies at the heart of what we hear and its impact is heightened by the artfully achieved simplicity of the settings. Anxiety and a modest measure of dissonance can be heard in the harshness of the fourth song meshing with despair and inevitability. The unaffected Something was Lost is a beguiling song freighted with Schubertian sadness. Pictorial effects are not uncommon as in the sound of barking in the piano part of The dogs by the Sea. You can also hear the bluebottle buzzing in While the flies are buzzing. There’s the mournful sea-sway of the Gösta Nystroem songs in My Yearning. All this melancholy may get to you so beware but is it any more than that found in the songs of Othmar Schoek?- it’s certainly no less intense. By way of illustration Flower Tell Me has a last line that says - “Is it tiring to wait for the hand / that will break just your stem?”
The songs are sung in Swedish, their original language, and these are reproduced in the excellent Sterling booklet alongside translations into English.
These songs may be remorselessly morose but Pettersson distils beauty from sorrow.
Rob Barnett, MusicWeb-International