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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
Symphony No. 6, Op. 31, “Dollar Symphony” (1928) [27:12]
A Värmland Rhapsody, 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/Neeme Järvi
rec. 31 May – 8 June 2012, Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden
CHANDOS CHSA5116 [70:14]

This disc, billed by Chandos as “Orchestral Works, Volume 1”, was nominated as a “Recording of the Month” by my Musicweb International colleague Ian Lace. If my enthusiasm doesn’t stretch quite so far as that, it is certainly is a most satisfying and, above all, enjoyable collection. Atterberg fans will rightly snap up this disc, and no doubt others later in the series. Those who have never heard a note of his music, especially late Romantic or early twentieth-century music enthusiasts, should certainly give it a try.
The earliest work on the disc, the “Sinfonia piccola”, was composed as a result of what Stig Jacobsson’s excellent notes call a “friendly competition” between Atterberg and his friend Natanael Berg. Each was to compose an orchestral piece, limited to twenty minutes in duration, and in which the tuba was to be given prominence. Atterberg’s piece is in four movements and is based on Swedish folk tunes he had loved since his youth. It is hardly imposing enough to merit the term “symphony”. The first movement opens with tremendous energy, also a feature of the finale. There is more than a trace of bombast in both movements, and for this listener the lovely slow movement and the tiny, fleet scherzo are the finest passages. The work overall makes for very pleasant and easy listening, and in parts more than that. The tuba is certainly present, by the way, but hardly justifies its place in the team!
The Suite No. 3 started life as incidental music for Maeterlinck’s Soeur Béatrice. The play tells the story of a nun fallen into sinful ways, and would not, I think, make for the most amusing evening out. Limited space obliged Atterberg to write for no more than three instruments, violin, viola and harmonium. The resulting Suite of three movements, with the harmonium replaced by strings, is wistful and melancholy, but lovely and satisfying to listen to.
The Sixth Symphony has a curious history. It was the outright winner of a world-wide composing competition whose remit was to produce a symphonic work that celebrated Schubert’s “lyric genius” in the centenary year of that composer’s death, 1928. The prize was the enormous sum of $10,000 – with which Atterberg bought himself a flash car, and which earned the symphony its nickname. The work was already in progress when Atterberg decided on a remould to fit the requirements of the competition. The sketches show that the three movements were originally to be entitled Allegro tradizionale, Adagio sentimentale and Finale banale. The work’s conservative idiom was apparently the subject of much comment in the years following the competition, and though it is neither a modernist nor a challenging score, with a melodic and harmonic language less advanced than that of Ravel, say, most of the musical ideas are individual and attractive enough to make it easy to understand why the judges thought so highly of it. It was recorded, by Beecham, no less – the work could have been made for him – even before its first public performance. The work opens with an immediately attractive theme over a chugging accompaniment, one of those tunes that lodges itself stubbornly in the mind. This first movement is, I think, the most successful of the three: it follows through with an unmistakeable symphonic logic whilst being, at the same time, very accessible. The slow movement is certainly sentimental, but not excessively so. Where the work falls down is in the noisy finale – really quite banale – where the composer goes overboard with percussion and other gestures bordering on the cheap. The most successful passage is one for high violins over a chattering woodwind accompaniment a couple of minutes before the end, but nobody, I think, could claim this to be any kind of symphonic peroration.
Particularly attractive is the most recent, and the shortest, piece in the collection, an exquisite and richly orchestrated meditation on folk themes from the Swedish county of Värmland.
Neeme Järvi is, like Beecham before him, in his element in music such as this, finely crafted but not of the first rank. He makes the best possible case for it, and the superb Gothenburg players support him to the hilt. With sonics that I have only heard in conventional stereo, but which are well up to the standards of the house, this disc will appeal warmly to Atterberg novices and converts alike.
William Hedley
See also review by Ian Lace (Recording of the Month)