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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

The third volume of Neeme Järvi‘s Atterberg cycle brings us his First and Fifth symphonies.

It was brave of Atterberg to essay a symphony with only two catalogued works behind him: a Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, Op. 1 and a String Quartet, Op 2. More remarkably, as we learn from Stig Jacobsson’s valuable notes, he deliberately kept the evolving score secret from his composition teacher, the conservative Andreas Hallén, for fear his teacher should influence the work. So, you could say that Atterberg’s first venture into symphonic form was self-taught.

The symphony is cast in four movements and the first of them opens in confident and assertive fashion. Atterberg also shows confidence in handling the orchestra. Järvi gives a strong account of it, as befits a movement marked Allegro con fuoco. The second movement is a long-breathed Adagio which Järvi plays well. Particularly striking is an extended, sweeping passage for violins (5:59-6:48); the fiddles are taken up eventually into their topmost register and the horns are prominent in a rich accompaniment. It’s an impressive section. Also worthy of note is the rather mysterious, tranquil ending. The only other recording of this symphony which I know is the one conducted by Ari Rasilainen for CPO as part of his complete Atterberg cycle (review). I found when making comparisons between the performances by the two conductors of Atterberg’s Second and Eighth symphonies that Rasilainen has a propensity for greater expansiveness than Järvi and that’s the case here also. Just to give an idea, Rasilainen reaches the aforementioned sweeping melody for the violins later than Järvi does (7:10-8:10). I feel also that his treatment of this passage is more ardent – he also gets more nobility into the music. Furthermore he finds a greater sense of mystery in the closing pages.

The third movement, a Presto, follows the slow movement without a break. In fact, Atterberg said of the two middle movements that they “actually constitute one [movement]. For they shall follow one after the other without a break.” It’s not for me to question the composer but I’m bound to say that I have so far failed to find the two movements complementary, still less unified. The Presto bursts in after the slow movement. Initially the music is busy and before long it’s also pretty forthright and energetic. It’s strange music that, to me, hints – and sometimes more than hints – at dark forces. Both Järvi and Rasilainen impel the music forward strongly and excitingly.

The finale is the most extensive movement. It has an Adagio introduction in which, Stig Jacobsson tells us, the composer “reminded himself of what he had already composed.” At 3:06 we arrive at the main body of the movement, an Allegro energico. From now on the movement is thrusting and very dynamic, qualities that Järvi certainly brings out. I think that Rasilainen finds a little more poetry in the introduction – you won’t be surprised to learn that he takes a little longer over it – and he seems rather more ready to mould the phrases. However, in the main allegro honours are pretty evenly divided, I’d say.

It took Atterberg the best part of five years to compose his Fifth symphony and even then he revised it quite a lot, the final revision being a re-write of the finale in 1947. Järvi plays the revised version and I’m pretty sure from my listening – I haven’t seen a score - that Rasilainen does the same, though that’s not explicitly stated in the CPO booklet. Atterberg gave the symphony the title ‘Sinfonia funebre’ and was insistent that the second word in the title was the Italian word and not the French equivalent with an accent on the first letter ‘e’. He prefaced the score with a line from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol: ‘For each man kills the thing he loves.’ The symphony is in three movements which play without a break.

There’s a very substantial difference between the playing time of Järvi’s performance and that of the Rasilainen version. Järvi is done and dusted in 26:25 whereas Rasilainen takes no fewer than eight minutes longer at 34:23. In accordance with the pattern that’s emerging it’s largely in the slower music that the time differences arise.

The first movement is marked Pesante allegro at first. That’s the only tempo indication printed in the CPO booklet. However, with their usual thoroughness, Chandos list all the tempo modifications; there are in fact seven different marked speeds in the movement. I have the impression – but without reference to a score I can’t be more precise – that Rasilainen perhaps makes a bit more of the tempo modifications than does Järvi. With Järvi in particular the movement is powerful and dramatic – I’ve written “fist waving?” in my notes – and I don’t think that’s an inappropriate way with Atterberg’s music here.

The two conductors have radically different approaches to the Lento second movement. I think there’s a case to be made that Järvi’s speed is justified by the tempo marking. Rasilainen, however, makes the piece into a true Adagio and in his hands it plays for 9:51 against Järvi’s 6:35. As I say, Järvi’s relatively flowing tempo may be in line with the tempo marking. On the other hand the CPO booklet note quotes from a newspaper review of one of the first performances of the symphony, in Germany in 1923. There reference is made to “a beautiful and gripping funeral march such as is only rarely to be encountered in the whole of the newer symphonic literature. “It’s not entirely clear which German performance was the subject of this review but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the composer-conducted première performance in Berlin. You get a much greater sense of a tragic piece of music from Rasilainen. In his hands the music is more sad and searching. Also he maintains his basic tempo – only one tempo is indicated – whereas Järvi is more ready to modify the speeds. I don’t know which conductor’s approach is “right” but my strong preference is for Rasilainen.

The finale caused Atterberg a bit of initial difficulty but his inspiration came when he attended a masked ball in 1921 and danced with two pretty girls, one of whom he eventually married. Much of this last movement is in waltz time but this is not a happy, carefree waltz. There are frequent dark passages where the dance is interrupted and, in fact, though the two pieces are vastly different I fancy I detected some similarity of thought or intent between Atterberg’s finale and the middle movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.

Järvi begins the movement with great energy; Rasilainen is marginally steadier and weightier but the difference is not great. This is another movement with many tempo changes – 14 are listed by Chandos – and without a score it’s not always possible to be certain when a new sped has been reached. What I think is the first of two Adagio sections arrives at 3:34 in Järvi’s performance; 4:09 in Rasilainen’s. In this section Rasilainen is darker and more probing than his rival. His performance is also more eventful – you can hear more of the piano part, for instance. The pace picks up at Tempo di valse (7:25 with Järvi), the horns prominent in the texture. Hereabouts Järvi imparts a fine, swinging whirl to the music. Rasilainen gets to the same point at 9:03 and thereafter his waltz is a bit more measured than Järvi’s, as befits his overall approach. On balance I prefer his way with the preceding slow passage but there’s a lot to be said for Järvi’s more mobile, swirling waltz. The end of the symphony is marked molto tranquillo and in this passage Atterberg gently and sadly recalls the waltzing. Järvi does this well but I think Rasilainen is even more regretful and poignant.

Weighing up the two versions of the Fifth whilst I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the Järvi performance Rasilainen digs deeper, especially in the slow movement. Overall he gets more out of Atterberg’s score. There’s less to choose between the two accounts of the First but once again, pressed to make a choice, I think Rasilainen reveals more. If you’re collecting the Järvi series then the choice is obvious but I’d urge you to try to hear his rival also.

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra plays both works with spirit and commitment. Chandos offer a trademark bold and detailed recording – though CPO’s sound, which dates from the early 1990s is pretty good too. Stig Jacobsson’s notes are very useful and more readable than the somewhat earnest CPO notes.

John Quinn



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