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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
Orchestral Works - Volume 1
Symphony No.6, Op.31 Dollar Symphony (1927-28) [27:12]
En värmlandsrapsodi, Op.36 (1933) [7:57]
Suite No.3, Op.19 No.1 (1921) [14:30]
Symphony No.4, Op.14 Sinfonia piccola (1918) [19:59]
Sara Trobäck Hesselink (violin); Per Högberg (viola)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (National Orchestra of Sweden)/Neeme Järvi
rec. Concert Hall, Gothenburg, 31 May-8 June 2012
CHANDOS CHSA5116 [70:14]

The present CD is the first of a projected series of Kurt Atterberg’s orchestral works from Chandos. All this music is new to me, in spite of there being at least two other versions of the symphonies currently available. My first impressions are of largely attractive music that is enjoyable but not necessarily challenging.
 
In spite of not having heard the work I do know the famous (infamous) story of the Sixth Symphony, ‘popularly’ know as the Dollar Symphony. This work won a competition organised in 1928 by the Columbia Phonograph Company. It was to celebrate the centenary of Schubert’s death. The composer ‘trousered’ the (then) massive sum of $10,000 (£2000). The symphony was first heard at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, with the Hallé Orchestra and their conductor Sir Hamilton Harty. Percy Young has recalled a review in the Musical Times ‘… many Manchester folk, left the Free Trade Hall … saddened by the thought that there had been six hundred symphonies entered for this contest, and that Atterberg’s had been deemed the best.’ To make matters worse, the composer later claimed that his entry was a joke and even produced a pamphlet describing ‘How I fooled the World’. Lewis Foreman in an extensive review of the CPO edition of this symphony has noted that after the premiere this work was subject to ‘open season’ for the tracing of influences. According to Foreman, Strauss, Dvořák, Elgar, Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Granados, César Franck, Chopin, Delius and Grieg were all contenders in the attempt to say what the Dollar Symphony sounded like.
 
I have two thoughts. The first is that the nature of the competition was to write a piece of music that was tuneful: the idea was to find out if melody could still be applied to a large-scale symphonic work. So it is hardly surprising that Atterberg chose to use ‘traditional’ forms, harmonies and tunes. This nod to the past was bound to throw up allusions galore to earlier masters. The result is a work that is ‘bright, entertaining, pleasant, jovial and energetic’. Do not be misled into thinking that Atterberg was somehow writing pastiche. He uses his materials, whether begged, stolen or borrowed with great creativity and aplomb.
 
The second consideration is that I do not for one minute believe that this is a great symphony, however I do think that it is a very good one. The reason for my confidence in this work is that for all the composer’s bluff, it is well constructed and internally consistent. It deserves its place in the repertoire.
 
The Suite No.3 derives from incidental music written for the play Soeur Béatrice by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) in 1918. It is a plot that would hardly pass muster in today’s world and would be regarded as banal. It was originally scored for the rare combination of violin, viola and harmonium. Fortunately, in 1921 Atterberg decided that the music was worth preserving and re-scored it for string orchestra with violin and viola solo. There are three movements - a ‘Prelude’, a ‘Pantomim moderato’ and a concluding ‘Vision’. The programme notes are correct in regarding this as ‘a small masterpiece’. In fact, it became one of the composer’s most performed works and this is reflected in the fact there are five recordings of this work currently available. The music is beautiful and certainly does not suffer from the same sentimentality that the play would appear to have had. It is a delightful discovery and I hope that it gets the popularity it deserves on Classic FM and elsewhere.
 
I was taken by En värmlandsrapsodi (A Värmland Rhapsody): this is an attractive, if a little meandering, meditation on some Swedish folk-songs. The work was composed in 1933 in a very short space of time as a celebration of the 75th birthday of the Swedish novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1909, Selma Lagërlof (1858 - 1940) who was living in Värmland at that time. It is gentle, reflective and introspective. In fact I would suggest that it is almost melancholic: certainly there is a profound sense of loneliness in this music. I enjoyed Atterberg’s sensitive scoring which was well-reflected in the performance.
 
The Symphony No.4 also has a strange history. It resulted from an informal contest with the Swedish composer Natanael Berg (1879 - 1957). The basis of this competition was to compose a short piece lasting no more than 20 minutes and containing a solo part for bass tuba. Atterberg produced his Sinfonia piccolo - and Berg’s was his Pezzo sinfonico. The thematic basis of this work derives from Swedish folk-tunes that are often in the minor mode. Atterberg did not use the tunes in their original form but varied, modified and transformed them to his own whim. There are four well-balanced movements. The first is boisterous, the slow movement is reflective, and the brief scherzo is almost Mendelssohnian in its touch. The final ‘rondo’ reminds me for some reason of the last movement of York Bowen’s Second Symphony. However, the overarching influence in this work appears to be Sibelius and Dvořák.
 
The liner-notes are excellent, although there is room for a little more analysis and description of the music and certainly a more fulsome biography would be helpful to those who are new to Atterberg. The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi seems to give a perfect account of these works. I do not know these pieces in any other versions, but the performance here is ravishing and totally persuasive. The two soloists make a major contribution to the Suite No.3.
 
Kurt Atterberg’s music is something of a revelation. I was reminded - and this may seem strange - of Percy Whitlock’s masterpiece, the Organ Symphony. Then I recalled why. In a review of this work, Rob Barnett reflected that the first movement has been shown to have the ‘plunging romanticism of Louis Glass’s Fifth, Atterberg's Sixth, Madetoja's Second and Peterson-Berger’s Journey to the South. Certainly Atterberg has a depth of romanticism that is striking. The composer himself stated that he was influenced by Max Reger, the Russian composers and Johannes Brahms. Added to this was his interest in Swedish folk-tunes. All this leads to an attractive mix that is always well-wrought, sometimes downright moving and always interesting. The only ‘negative’ is that the music lack challenge. However, not all composers are made to break the mould. In Atterberg’s case he seems to have perfected an older design.
 
John France  

see also review by Ian Lace (March 2013 Recording of the Month)


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