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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
Symphony No. 9 op. 54 Sinfonia Visionaria (1956) [40.45]
Älven - The River op. 33 (1929) [19.50]
Satu Vihavainen (mezzo)
Gabriel Suovanen (bar)
NDR Chor/Celso Antunes
Prager Kammerchor/Pavel Kühn
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Ari Rasilainen
rec. Großer Sendesaal Hannover, Jan 2003. DDD
CPO 999 013-2 [60.35]

With this disc Atterberg's symphonic cycle on disc is achieved. We'll leave out of the reckoning, for now, the highly attractive Symphony for Strings (outside the numbered canon just like the Arnold work of the same title). More to the point this completes the first cycle on one label, by one conductor but with orchestral service divided between Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt, Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR, SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart.

Atterberg's symphonies on record have before now been patchwork quilted across labels. No. 2 on Swedish Society Discofil. No. 3 on Caprice (a superb recording by the way). No. 4 is on Sterling. No. 6 is multiply recorded on dell'Arte, Koch and most accessibly on Bis. Numbers 7 Romantica and 8 are coupled on Sterling and on CPO.

The CPO nine are as follows and surely we can hope that they will be issued soon as a complete boxed cycle … perhaps in 2004 to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death:-

Numbers 1 and 4 CPO 999 639-2

Numbers 2 and 5 CPO 999 565-2

Numbers 3 and 6 CPO 999 640-2

Numbers 7 and 8 CPO 999 641-2

Number 9 and Älven CPO 999 913-2

Piano Concerto; Rhapsody; Ballade and Passacaglia CPO 999 732-2

After the strongly tuneful Nordic romantic-impressionism of the earlier scores I fear that some listeners are in for a bit of a culture shock with the Ninth. It sounds promising. After all the text is from the Voluspá ('The Face of the Prophetess'), part of the Icelandic Edda - setting out their creation epic. The Vanir and Aesir are mentioned in the sung text as are Odin, Midgård, Yggdrasil, Heimdall, Thor, Loki and Frigg. Is this going to be a vivid nationalistic score with elements of symphonies 3, 7 and 8 impelled into the mix? Well actually, no. The contours are instead undulating not jagged, the approach is narrative rather than dramatic and the music is sombre, concentrated, serious and broad. It is determinedly tonal but it is as if the composer no longer sees any compulsion to create magical effects or brilliance. It is predominantly meditative with animation only entering in Med spjut sprängde Oden, Rym styr un östern and Nu stundar Friggas movements (trs.6, 11, 12 - the latter two being choral). The Symphony ends after the words:-

"The sun blackens

the land sinks into the sea

The sun blackens

winter's frost in summer

From heaven fall

flaming stars.

...

Much I've experienced

I see far into the future

...

Now the Vala is silent."

Certainly a downbeat ending ... 'not with a bang but a wimper'. None of the visionary exaltation of Rosenberg's Johannes Uppenbarelse, Martinu's Epic of Gilgamesh nor the monumentalism of Goossens' Apocalypse or Schmidt's Book with Seven Seals.

Its performance history has been predictably sparse. The premiere was given in Helsinki in 1957 when the conductor was Nils-Erik Fougstedt and the orchestra was the Helsinki Symphony. There was a performance in Dortmund in 1962 and another in Göteborg in 1975 on the anniversary of the composer's death. A tape of the 1957 premiere has given the symphony a kind of half-life on the tape underground network. Michael Kube's insert note is typically helpful and provocative comparing Visionaria with Karl Weigl's Apocalyptic Symphony; Korngold's Symphony in F sharp and Hindemith's Die Harmonie der Welt. The booklet is typically helpful with the full sung text given as sung and in English and German translation side by side.

As contrast and salve to those bruised by the sustained sobriety of the Symphony, Älven - från fjällen till havet (The River - from the Mountains to the Sea) is a symphonic poem written in the wake of the worldwide success of the Sixth Symphony. It was commissioned by the Göteborg Orchestral Society (who revived it in the 1980s with Norman del Mar. It is in seven continuously-played episodes: Through mountains and forests; The great lake; The waterfalls; The quiet, wide stream; The harbour; View from the mountains over the sea; Out to the sea. There is an even more detailed verbal account given by the composer and quoted in the booklet. The musical idiom is comparable with the Third Symphony - alive with colour and contrast as well as being rich in melodic resource. The music moves through filmic grandeur to impressionistic filigree (à la Bantock's Pierrot of the Minute), to malcontented nightmare rising to a deeply impressive rolling brass theme more Korngold than Strauss (tr.16). Restless activity is punctuated with a jerkily emphatic romantic motif that suggests the Third Symphony (West Coast Pictures), the calm star glimmer of The Harbour is made distraught with some very 'modern' wailings and groans (Ruggles and Varèse perhaps) disrupted by a typically twee Swedish folksong to the proto-Delian nobility of the view from mountain eminence across the sea's murmuring miles which in the final episode no longer murmur but shout brassily (compare the howling gales in Bax's November Woods) from walls of water and sing with a triumph touched on in the very Third Symphony hinted at earlier.

I hope that this is not the end of CPO's journey with Atterberg. The Symphony for Strings and a Double Concerto await as also does the Arabian fantasy opera Fanal - a work which judging by its three Interludes (almost a symphony in their own right) is set fair to capture hearts among those who take warmly to Rimsky's Antar and Biarent's Contes d'Orient.

Two quite different works juxtaposed on this disc. There is the tone poem with some untypically avant-garde noises in the Harbour section but otherwise vintage Atterberg (like the Third Symphony) and an enigmatic Ninth Symphony which has little surface glamour but promises longer terms rewards with repeated and determined listenings.

Rob Barnett



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