Hemingway wrote that life breaks us all, but it is the exception that proves the rule. Life never broke Allan Pettersson. Beaten by his alcoholic father as a child in the Stockholm slums, Pettersson spent his twenties and thirties as a backdesk violist in the Stockholm Philharmonic. After the rapid onset of crippling polyarthritis in his early forties, he spent the remaining 27 years of his life in near-constant physical pain. Despite an almost complete lack of recognition by the Swedish musical establishment, Pettersson never stopped composing, and his 17 symphonies, six concertos, two song cycles, and one cantata bear testimony to his indomitable will. He was absolutely adamant about his music's emotional content. "Someone once said that I compose out of self-pity. I have never pitied myself; I have never been able to cry. I know of pity for others but not self-pity. I find it difficult to hate people, but I do hate those who pity themselves." Pettersson's 16 extant symphonies do not express self-pity, but they are full of furious rage.
Almost always in one monolithic movement, Pettersson's symphonies are melodically minimal, tonally rudimentary, rhythmically primitive, and formally inchoate. Generally neo-expressionist in style, they are scored for scrapping strings, screeching woodwinds, and blaring brass driven by snare drum-led percussion sections. They usually maintain a single bleak and baleful mood, and are suffused with unrelenting disdain, unending loathing, and unappeasable anger. In spite of instances like No. 12's brutal writing for mixed chorus and No. 16's inept solo writing for alto saxophone, the symphonies are ultimately redeemed by rare pages of rapt beauty, passages when the winds, brass, and percussion cease their howling and pounding and the violins take up a quiet song of hope above the lower strings' consoling harmonies, passages when some might say that, almost despite themselves, the symphonies touch the infinite.
With seven conductors leading six different orchestras in three different counties recorded over 20 years, CPO's 12-disc box set of Pettersson's symphonies is a labor of love. While some performances are better than others, all of them are much more than professional: they're deeply dedicated. And while some of the recordings are clearer than others, all are clean, close, and very, very loud.