The English notes for this disc refer to Allan Pettersson as an "oddball." The French notes have the word as "original" while in German it reads "Querdenker." Unfortunately, the epitaph is not inappropriate. Few composers had a more consistently difficult life and fewer still wrote such relentlessly difficult music. Born on the wrong side of Stockholm to a violent father and a pietistic mother, Pettersson spent his working life as a pit violist, then retired with a small pension to a sixth-floor walkup flat to compose furious symphonies while dealing with crippling rheumatoid arthritis.
One of those symphonies is this one, his Twelfth from 1974, called "De döda pa torget" (The Dead in the Public Square) after one of the nine poems of Pablo Neruda it sets. His only choral symphony, Pettersson's "De döda" is a passionate howl of righteous outrage against the injustices and indignities heaped on suffering humanity. But because of its uniformly shrill tone and consistently strident expression, it howls only to the converted. To fulfill one of his rare commissions, Pettersson in his Twelfth added primitive but effective choral writing to his standard mix of searing themes, stark harmonies, relentless ostinatos, enormously extended forms, and extremely violent scoring. Imagine an expressionist Bruckner with choral writing à la Orff and you have some idea what to expect.
Indefatigable Pettersson advocate Manfred Honeck leads the Swedish Radio Symphony, the Swedish Radio Choir, and the Eric Erickson Chamber Choir in a performance more polished if somewhat less passionate than the recording of the work's premiere performance by Carl Larsson with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchester and Choir on Caprice. If you have already heard that recording and liked it, you'll probably want to hear this one, too. If you don't have any Pettersson, you might start with something else, perhaps his Sixth Symphony, a prototypical example of the composer at his most intense but also his most cogent. Also, CPO's sound is much warmer, although no deeper than the Caprice premiere.