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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
Symphony No.3, Op.10 Vastkustbilder (1914-16) [36:23]
Three Nocturnes from Fanal, Op.35bis (1929-32) [17:15]
Vittorioso, Op.58 (1962) [8:22]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden: Symphony: 20 November 1997 (live); Other works: 19-21 January 2015
CHANDOS CHAN10894 [62:23]

Atterberg’s music has been enjoying a modest revival in the last few years and there are now three recordings available of his third symphony alone. These are the 1982 version by the Stockholm Philharmonic under Sixten Ehrling on Caprice (download only), the 2000 version by the NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Stuttgart under Ari Rasilainen on CPO and this newcomer. This is no fewer than the music deserves - the third is one of the composer’s most compelling and atmospheric works although, for some reason, it was originally vilified by the Swedish music critics. In fact, Ehrling’s recording was made after only the first performance of the symphony in Sweden since Albert Coates last conducted it there in 1935. No matter – the symphony was very well received abroad, especially in Germany, where it achieved great popularity and had received an unheard-of twenty two performances by 1924.

Whereas Debussy’s La Mer is described as a symphonic suite of three movements but could be regarded as a symphony, Atterberg’s third symphony doesn’t have anything like the integrated structure of the Debussy work. It could just as well be regarded as a suite of three tone poems or seascapes. This reflects the somewhat piecemeal assembly of the work. The first movement (“Summer Haze”) originated in a family holiday at Lysekil in 1914 and depicts the calm sea of a sunny day. After he conducted the premiere of this work in April 1915 Atterberg decided to compose a second contrasting picture (“Storm”). Both works were performed in a concert of February 1916, again with the composer conducting. A subsequent holiday at Lysekil in May 1916 gave rise to the composition of the third movement (“Summer Night”). In contrast to the turbulence of the second picture the third is inspired by the glowing colours of the evening sky and a warm breeze. This movement, incidentally, provides one of the very few opportunities to hear a part for alto flute. The work was finally premiered in its entirety in November 1916 by the Hovkapellet (The Royal Opera House Orchestra) in Stockholm - and it may be that the inadequacies of the performance were partly to blame for its poor critical reception there. That said, the underlying reason is difficult to unearth and may have had more to do with a perception that Atterberg’s music was too similar to that of Rangström or just insufficiently Wagnerian; although that didn’t make it less acceptable to the German public.

Both of the other recordings of this symphony have their champions. Rob Barnett felt that both Rasilainen’s performance and recording were to be preferred to Ehrling’s – not to speak of the CPO performance he was then reviewing being part of a bargain set of the complete symphonies. Other reviewers, including Lewis Foreman regarded Ehrling’s as a marginally more definitive performance. Not having Rasilainen’s disc to hand I opted to compare Järvi with Ehrling. Timings are similar:
 

  Mvt 1 Mvt 2 Mvt 3
Järvi 7:33 11:25 17:13
Ehrling 7:22 11:00 16:00

There is little to choose between the performances. I felt that Ehrling’s magically delineated opening horn theme in the first movement was rather better and generally sounded slightly brisker. The Caprice sound is cool and clear but recorded at a slightly low level. Järvi’s “Storm” is more involving and the more modern Chandos recording pays real dividends here. I marginally preferred Ehrling’s take on the third movement – Järvi, not unreasonably, likes to linger a bit more - but there is no denying the greater presence and spread of Järvi’s recording, which captures the glow of the evening colours nicely. The Gothenburg musicians make up for the years of Swedish neglect of this symphony with superb playing. The recording is described as “live” but I noticed no audience noise. Forced to choose between the two I would have to go for the more modern recording.

As regards choosing between all three recordings, the couplings may be an issue. The couplings here are premiere recordings of four pieces drawn from Atterberg’s third (and most popular) opera Fanal. The plot of this opera concerns the capture and rescue of a princess during the German Peasants’ War of 1525 and the colourful and descriptive Three Nocturnes from it were intended to form a suite. The first, the prelude to Act II, represents an escape during the night and there is some suitably pounding music to suggest this. The second starts like a funeral march – which is apt because it represents the princess’s dream: “March to the Scaffold”. The third falls into three sections: “Night Battle – Dawn – Song of Peace” and finally represents a happy ending.

The fourth piece, Vittorioso, was intended as the fourth movement of Atterberg’s Seventh Symphony of 1942 — the themes of which were all drawn from Fanal — but Atterberg soon abandoned it because he felt the symphony actually had no need of it. Reluctant to waste the good ideas in the work he re-wrote it twenty years later as an independent composition. It could still be programmed with the symphony but it is, perhaps, just as appropriate to programme it as here – given that it could stand as a fourth Nocturne of the suite. Bearing in mind that there is nothing particularly nocturnal about the pieces apart from their context, in the same way that the Third Symphony could be regarded as a suite, these four pieces could feasibly be regarded as a pseudo-symphony. As in the Third Symphony, Järvi and the GSO perform splendidly and the recording is excellent. A very enjoyable disc.

Bob Stevenson

Previous review: Ian Lace

 

 




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