Here is a collection of rare historical treats. The second half
of the program is a live concert in which Arturo Toscanini celebrated
his relationship with
South America; the first half is, perhaps, even more surprising. Kurt Atterberg’s Symphony
won the Columbia Record Company’s $10,000 grand prize and international
renown in 1928, but has fallen into obscurity since. It remained in the spotlight
long enough, however, for Toscanini to perform the symphony exactly once, on
21 November 1943, in a broadcast which appears here.
The connection between Atterberg and Toscanini is an odd one: Toscanini’s
first residence in the United States was a home he rented from Atterberg’s
father. The Italian maestro discovered the score of this symphony on the family
piano and apparently was unaware that it had been a major prize-winner praised
by composers as prominent as Carl Nielsen. But he immediately recognized the
symphony as a masterwork, and the result is this recording.
Atterberg was one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th
and his importance is still belittled today because he took the trouble to write
his nine symphonies in a purely tonal, tuneful musical language which requires
no academic background or technical jargon to explain. One could call Atterberg
the last of the great romantics; his symphonic cycle, penned between 1909 and
1956, postdates at least in part the masterworks of Sibelius, Strauss, Elgar
and Rachmaninov. His style is certainly more outgoing and folksy than that of
Sibelius, and more cheerfully free of pretension than some of the late-romantics
who found their inspiration in Mahler and Bruckner. Perhaps the most useful analogy
for a newcomer unfamiliar with Atterberg’s style is to point out that this
composer’s native land, Sweden, is wedged between Grieg’s Norway
and Sibelius’s Finland, and that his musical language is situated somewhere
between those two as well. Atterberg’s orchestral work has the folk-tune
festiveness and bright orchestration of Grieg, alongside the pensive melancholic
moods of Sibelius and the Finnish composer’s willingness to invent new
structural forms to suit his material.
The Sixth Symphony
is probably not Atterberg’s best symphony; I
prefer the Seventh
and the stunning Eighth
, and my personal favorite
is the Third
, with its miraculous finale. But the Sixth
abundance of great ideas bursting out of a compact three-movement framework.
It lasts just a half-hour but has enough tunes and thematic plot twists to fill
a work twice the length! The first movement is remarkable for its surprising
opening, off-kilter strings and harp setting the rhythm of the section while
the horn announces the main tune. The finale was a conscious attempt by Atterberg
to create a movement of real dramatic substance using the most trivial main theme
he could imagine - and the tune is indeed incredibly silly.
Toscanini and his NBC Symphony Orchestra turn in a remarkable account of the
symphony, fast-paced and bustling with energy. At times, I felt that much more
could meet the ears if the music was paced more slowly, or that a slower speed
could have prevented the feeling of out-of-control tune-spinning. But evidently
Atterberg himself - who was in the audience for the broadcast - considered this
the best performance of the symphony he had ever heard!
If this is the way Atterberg wanted the symphony to be heard, he wanted it to
project supreme confidence and youthful enthusiasm … and perhaps hyperactivity,
though he was already 40 years old. He wanted us to observe the stunning quality
of the orchestration. These are the qualities most obvious here, capped by the
symphony’s gloriously cheerful ending.
Toscanini and the NBC orchestra certainly have a great way with the work: the
finale’s main theme is gloriously banal here, with flutes and triangle
given true prominence; the first movement’s climaxes have enormous impact
and one of the subsidiary tunes (track 1, 1:21) really makes my ears perk up.
Toscanini chooses an ideal tempo for the first movement, superior to the too-fast
modern recording on CPO (with Ari Rasilainen and the NDR Radio Philharmonic).
My main reservation is that a historical recording of this vintage, with hiss-
and pop-free but fairly limited mono sound, cannot accurately convey the humongous
range of colors Atterberg and Toscanini draw from the orchestra. Climaxes especially
become super-congested as the full orchestra competes to be heard. Anyone really
interested in Atterberg’s orchestral music will be acquiring the CPO cycle
to explore these lavish symphonies in the modern sound quality they deserve.
The rest of this historical disc comes from a live broadcast given on 14 May
1940 in Washington, D.C., in which Toscanini celebrates his interest in South
American music. For reasons unknown, the program included only one work by a
South American - but let that not concern us. The Brahms symphony which began
the night has been lost to time, but works by Strauss (Don Juan
), Barber (Adagio for Strings
) and that token bit of genuine
South American music (Oscar Fernandez’s Batuque
) are preserved for
The Barber Adagio
is given an emotionally harrowing performance. Toscanini
stretches out the climactic chords until they are very nearly unbearable, and
with the NBC strings in top form the result is heartrending. Little wonder listener
polls have regularly named this one of the saddest works ever composed; fine
performances of the Adagio for Strings
abound, but even the very best
- such as Alsop’s account on Naxos - sound restrained compared to this.
Strauss’s Don Juan
receives an enjoyable performance, a little indulgent
in the slower passages (rare, for Toscanini) but very well-played. Amusingly,
the radio announcer, whose comments are retained in separate tracks, introduces Don
as “one of the masterpieces of modern music”, which will,
perhaps, come as a surprise to those who associate the term “modern music” in
the year 1940 with composers like Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Hindemith.
The single South American selection on the program, Batuque
by Oscar Lorenzo
Fernandez, is a pops-concert smash bursting with Brazilian rhythms and played
here with wonderful panache. La Valse
is paced quickly, around the eleven-minute
mark. Short of the mono sound itself, there is little to fault with this fine
performance of Ravel’s little masterpiece.
Toscanini fans will need no urging from me to check this disc out; Atterberg
aficionados will need it as well, though newcomers to his symphonies might best
start elsewhere. Broadly speaking, however, if you enjoy historical recordings
and want to hear a great conductor leading energized live recordings of timeless
late-romantic repertoire, buy with confidence. The budget price is a very welcome