The Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg's lively style should dispel the stereotype of northern composers as "detached" or "stoic". Much of his writing does have a "Nordic" clarity of line and directness of utterance - like a warmer-weather Sibelius, perhaps. On the other hand, the surging line of his fast movements and his colourful, wide-ranging orchestral palette suggest something closer to Richard Strauss.
The Second Symphony, in F major, opens in a pastoral mood but quickly builds in intensity. The second theme, a stark brass chorale, is not in the expected dominant key of C major, but in the "Dorian" dominant of C minor - a vivid shift, and apparently influenced by Swedish folk music. The movement otherwise follows harmonic and structural conventions, with a distinctly Romantic sweep carrying it through.
The second movement alternates Adagio
episodes, fulfilling the functions of both a slow movement and a scherzo. The valedictory breadth of the Adagio
's final statement suggests that the symphony might be ending here, and, in fact, it originally did: Atterberg originally planned the work in just two movements. After some indecision, he eventually added a third movement in 1913. The new finale is powerful and, again, surgingly dramatic; the harmonies are a bit more angular than in the other two movements, and the brass again take prominent melodic roles.
The Eighth Symphony, from some thirty years later, strikes an altogether different pose. The score's subtitle, "Composed on Swedish National Melodies", might suggest something cheerful or even lightweight, but only the Molto vivo
third movement - a dancing, light-textured scherzo wavering ambiguously between 6/8 and 3/4 - fits that description. The first movement's Largo
introduction is intense and brooding; the Allegro
proper is lithe, and lighter in texture, but the minor keys maintain a dark mood. The Adagio
's ambiguous lyricism recalls some of the Vaughan Williams slow movements; the previously cited Dorian influence crops up in some melodic choices. The finale is powered by a slashing drive, with trenchant rhythmic punctuations; there are some lilting episodes, but the prevailing minor keys maintain a severe aspect.
Neeme Järvi, a purveyor of the long line rather than a precisionist, excels at this sort of music. The first movement of the Eighth seems to creep faster by sections, and it's unclear whether or not this was intentional, raising questions about his control. He does have the orchestra sounding wonderful, though; the feathery violins in the scherzo of the Eighth are particularly captivating.
Over the years, Chandos seems to have tamed the resonance which rendered some of its recordings of the 1990s murky and chaotic. At its best, the recording is vivid - the brass chorales in the F major symphony register with brilliance and depth. There remain some anomalous perspectives, however, with the woodwinds, and even the strings, occasionally sounding recessed within the general texture. Still, everything's clear enough, and it's unlikely this will be bettered any time soon.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
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~~ Brian Reinhart