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Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Ernst Pepping and Allan Pettersson: Moral Dilemmas in Symphonic Music

Complete Symphonies 1-3; Piano Concerto

Ernst Pepping
Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie
Werner Andreas Albert: conductor.
Volker Banfield: piano.
CPO 777 041

Symphony No. 12

Allan Pettersson
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck: conductor.
CPO 777 146

During a period of social upheaval, the influence of an overpowering group mentality can make it difficult for an individual to see the forest for the trees; witness, for example, the muddled thinking of early 20th century Germans who supported the Nazis in the interest of self-preservation. Sadly, hindsight is often just as myopic: A black-and-white moral interpretation of history seldom recognizes mass confusion as a pretext for shortsighted ethical decisions. As many artists have discovered, misinterpretation may relegate them to obscurity, or worse.

Ernst Pepping was a German composer whose initial work in the 1920s followed the avant-garde path of Hindemith, but as the Third Reich tightened its grasp over the populace, his development took a conveniently neoclassical direction. He trained his focus on church music, specifically choral pieces and compositions for organ; it is his work in this vein for which he is best known. However, he wrote symphonic music as well, and the historical context of Nazi Germany offers us a vantage point from which we can judge these works. The Nazis approved of artworks that were accessible and characteristically “German”; those that did not conform to this aesthetic were labeled “degenerate” and were often destroyed. Owing perhaps to self-protection, Pepping stayed on in Germany, where he no doubt felt the security of a government that supported his work.

CPO has issued a two-disc collection of Pepping’s three symphonies spanning 1939 to 1944, adding his 1950 Piano Concerto. Unfortunately, the otherwise informative liner notes brush aside the historical circumstances under which Pepping’s music was written. Taken on their own terms, the three symphonies are predictably pleasant but not ground-breaking. The First and the Third are all warmth and good cheer, with only occasional intimations of darkness on the horizon; the Second is more solemn, but gains little emotional heft from its gloomier disposition. The Piano Concerto, the lone postwar composition included here, is more substantial, though just as adherent to rigid tonality. The fall of the Third Reich clearly did not inspire Pepping to venture into experimental territory, evidence perhaps that his conservative approach was not based on pressure from the Nazis, but rather on a like-minded preference for traditionalism. In each of these pieces Pepping exhibits a mastery of color and form, but his symphonies are so formalistic, they best function as examples of music that survived Hitler’s regime.

Swedish composer Allan Pettersson shared Pepping’s withdrawal from radical experimentalism, opting for a late Romantic style with a bleak undercurrent. Pettersson’s life was marked by overwhelming hardships: His father was an abusive alcoholic who beat him for displaying an interest in music; as he studied at the Stockholm Royal Conservatory of Music, his working class background alienated him from the other students; and in later life, he was plagued by various illnesses, including crippling arthritis that effectively ended his career as a violist. Against all odds Pettersson continued to compose until his death in 1980, writing music that conveyed outrage, not at his own miseries but at the universal plight of humanity.

Just as CPO has expanded on Pepping’s reputation as a choral writer by spotlighting his instrumental works, here they concentrate on Pettersson’s only choral symphony, the Twelfth. Enlisted in 1973 to commemorate the University of Uppsala’s 500th anniversary, he chose to adapt nine poems by Pablo Neruda, which reflect the 1946 public slaughtering of workers associated with the Chilean resistance movement. Immediately following Pettersson’s completion of the symphony, left-wing President Allende was overthrown by the Chilean military, prompting observers to misread Pettersson’s work as an explicit political statement, which it is not. What the symphony conveys with unbearably mounting tension is Pettersson’s empathy with society’s downtrodden.

It is far too easy to dismiss Pepping as having sold out to the authorities, and to praise Pettersson for remaining true to himself in the face of adversity. While the latter is indeed true, Pepping's case is more complicated. One should bear in mind that much ambiguity can accompany times of conflict; consider, for example, the confusion surrounding the inspiration for Pettersson's Twelfth. Notwithstanding public misconceptions about Pepping's political allegiances, his music is indeed well-crafted, but ultimately lacks the depth of Pettersson's work. Both composers are well-represented by sterling performances and CPO's top-notch sound quality, so these discs are worth hearing for more than historical reasons.


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