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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 3 (1909-11, rev. 1913) [36:46]
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 20, Sinfonia funebre (1917-22, rev. 1947) [26:25]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 2014/15, Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden

I am adding my impressions of this Volume 3 in the Järvi Chandos Atterberg Orchestral Works series to those of John Quinn in his fine review already on this site. I will not revisit his observations especially about Atterberg’s constantly shifting tempi but offer some general thoughts.

Atterberg’s First Symphony shows remarkable ability and confidence from a man in his early twenties. I was impressed with the Rasilainen reading of this symphony on CPO 999 639-2 and was moved to write a glowing review. There are pronounced differences between that and the new Chandos recording. Järvi is consistently faster through all four movements eschewing some detail and atmosphere for attack. His opening movement is thrusting, full of youthful zeal with an out-of-doors bracing feeling but with a brief creepy episode towards the end that might suggest monstrous entities lurking in the forests. The following Adagio movement is quite lovely. For the Rasilainen recording I wrote: “Beginning in nostalgic and intimate reflections, the music grows in intensity and broadens out to suggest a glorious shining vista. The music's texture pulsates gently, the colours vibrant, as distant horn calls, and romantic string melodies complete the magical effect of this blissful evocation.” I still hold to that impression and Järvi is no less affecting, his fiddle soloist very fine too. It is interesting to note that Atterberg’s sublime Third Symphony West Coast Pictures is anticipated here.

Järvi’s Presto third movement is more puckish and mischievous and again suggests the mysterious denizens of the forests and lakes. I have often compared Atterberg’s music, with no hint of derision, with the film music of Hollywood’s golden age and especially that of Korngold. Listening to the final movement of this symphony I think it could so easily have been substituted for Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood score. Here are all the heroics and the romance and that ravishing opening with the two violins in sweet dialogue is simply irresistible.

Moving on to the Fifth Symphony there is a considerable difference in timings here. Järvi’s approach spans just 26:25 whereas Rasilainen spreads himself over 34:23. Yet the Rasilainen readings never seem over-long; on the contrary they entrance and grip the ear. The biggest difference in approach is in the remarkable Lento funeral music. Järvi’s 6:35 is very different to that on the CPO alternative and a reading that I felt was more valid. The inspired writing for divided strings near the beginning, sharply stated in the Chandos recording, really adds to the intensity of the music and a pronounced rhythm suggesting the hearse horses’ hooves adds another dimension missing in the Rasilainen approach. However the latter cannot be dismissed because of the way it slowly evolves in great shining beauty and intensity. The opening movement is suitably eerie and nightmarish in character under both batons. The finale again reminds me of Hollywood music with Rasilainen’s strongly atmospheric reading suggesting how well it would have fitted a Roger Corman/Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe gothic horror film. Järvi’s reading is crisper and the nightmarish quality of that Totentanz, a valse macabre more pronounced.

Another splendid contribution to this evolving series (see review of Volumes 1 & 2). I look forward with keen anticipation to Järvi’s interpretation of Atterberg’s Symphony No. 3 West Coast Pictures.
Ian Lace

Another review ...

Many musicians have founded their careers on the basis of success in international competition. It comes as something of a surprise to note that Atterberg’s achievement of a world prize in composition in 1928 effectively seems to have torpedoed his subsequent career. The competition in question was ill-fated from the start; it originated in a request by Columbia Records to provide a completion of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony — 1928 was the centenary of Schubert’s death. When howls of outrage greeted the terms of the competition, it was hastily re-jigged to require a work “to celebrate the genius of Schubert” – and in the face of some pretty stiff international competition the prize was awarded to Atterberg’s Sixth Symphony. The work was recorded by Sir Thomas Beecham and issued on a set of 78s, and Atterberg’s future seemed assured but almost immediately a storm arose. Apart from the fact that the symphony had no obvious Schubertian connection, claims were made that it was a hoax designed specifically to appeal to the taste of specific judges on the jury. Atterberg himself did not help matters when he admitted that he had intended the work “partly as a joke”. The symphony rapidly acquired the nickname of the Dollar Symphony — a reference to the substantial prize money — and although Beecham’s recording continued to make occasional reissued appearances in the catalogue he seems after just one live performance to have made no further efforts to promote the work or indeed any of Atterberg’s other music. This continued to languish in obscurity until the 1970s when a number of his symphonies began to appear on record in worthy but rather coarsely recorded imported LPs; the Second under Stig Westerberg had actually been set down in the mid-1960s. It was not for another twenty-five years that a complete cycle emerged in a series of revelatory CPO issues conducted by Ari Rasilainen.

This cycle of discs finally revealed a composer of real stature who had been quite unjustifiably neglected, and it is good to see that Chandos have now taken up cudgels on Atterberg’s behalf with a series of CDs of which this is the third. We have already had issues of Nos. 2, 4, 6 and 8 (review), which means that we are still to expect Nos. 3 and 7 along with the choral No. 9. The Rasilainen recordings remain available both as individual issues as well as in a five-CD boxed set, but there is plenty of room in the catalogue for rival interpretations – which the music itself well merits. Those who have missed out on the pioneering earlier releases may well feel tempted by the new Järvi recordings, which have the advantage of SACD sound.

Both the symphonies on this latest release were revised subsequently to their first performances, in the case of the Seventh several times including a completely re-written final movement some twenty-five years after its première. All the recordings, including that by Westerberg, employ the final version; and one might complain that we have missed the opportunity here to hear Atterberg’s original thoughts. Stig Jacobsson’s valuable booklet notes inform us that it “had already been printed and was well-known in its original form” when the revision was undertaken. Still, with a figure who continues to be as under-valued as Atterberg it is probably wiser to present listeners with the score in the form that the composer finally approved.

As many critics observed when the Rasilainen cycle originally appeared, this is glorious music. It is rich and warmly scored, the melodic material is well-considered and well-developed, and Atterberg knows just when to stop to avoid any sense of note-spinning for its own sake. The three connected movements of the Fifth flow inexorably from one idea to the next; the First is obviously a less well-considered work, but it is far from negligible and both the central movements — a tranquil Adagio and a whirlwind nightmare of a scherzo with a still calm centre — are superbly well crafted. Nor is the music in the slightest degree afraid to experiment. The Fifth includes rarely heard instruments such as the heckelphone (a sort of bass oboe) and an orchestral piano that emerges briefly as a soloist. This symphony draws inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and in particular its haunting refrain “For each man kills the thing he loves”; and it is fully worthy of its subject. Rasilainen’s performance and recording were excellent; Järvi here is even better and more impassioned, with an even stronger orchestra and recording quality of Chandos’s best. The sound on the original Westerberg recording is comprehensively outclassed, although the impassioned conductor throws himself into the score with great abandon which can still sound most effective.

It is indeed gratifying to see Atterberg’s music finally emerging from the shadows into the sunlight it so richly deserves, and I rather hope that the appearance of fine recordings will stimulate more live performances in the concert hall. There are many fine Scandinavian symphonists outside the well-trodden paths of Sibelius and Nielsen, and Atterberg fully deserves a place in their pantheon. The front cover of this release is not precisely enticing – “view of the entrance of the Central Station in Gothenberg, Sweden, in rainy, dark December” – but don’t let that put you off. This music is neither rainy, nor dark.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: John Quinn



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