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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
Orchestral Works - Volume 4
Symphony No. 3 (Västkustbilder – West Coast Pictures) (1914-16) [36.23]
Three Nocturnes * (from the music for Atterberg’s opera Fanal) (1929-32) [17.15]
Vittorioso * (1962) [8.22]
Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden, 20 November 1997 (live) (Symphony); 19-21 January 2015 (other works)
* Premiere recordings

This new Chandos recording of one of my favourite Late-Romantic symphonies is something unusual for it is not a studio recording but a live performance recorded back in 1997 (reviews of Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3). It may have spontaneity but it lacks polish and to be perfectly frank does not compare too well with the existing two recordings made by Sixten Ehrling on Caprice CAP21364 with the Stockholm Philharmonic in 1982, and Ari Rasilainen on CPO 9906402 (review) recorded with the Radio-Philharmonie, Hanover and also as part of CPO's complete cycle 7771182 (review).

The difficulty with the newly released Järvi recording begins almost at once with some rather strange disconcerting brass intonation that sounds odd to non-Swedish ears; I hasten to add I was not discomforted much through the rest of the performance. The opening movement has the description ‘Soldis’ (Summer Haze) and is an evocation of a calm sea gently swelling beneath the sun. Both Ehrling and Rasilainen score here with Järvi adding little felicities and nuances suggesting the waters’ movements and breeze-swept spray but it lacks the polish of the others. The spectacular ‘Storm’ music of the central movement is thunderously exciting in Järvi’s hands to start with, screeching horrendously outside the fjord but its power seems to drain somewhat as the music progresses whereas the power of Ehrling’s savage, shrieking storm never lets up, it is one of the most tremendously powerful hostile elemental musical evocations I have ever heard. Järvi’s ‘Summer Night’ picture is successful to a degree but it cannot compare with Rasilainen’s glowing evocation (spreading over practically 18 minutes whereas Ehrling completes his ‘painting’ in just 16 and Järvi in a little over 17 minutes). Rasilainen’s reading is a rapturous description of glowing colours of the evening sky softening towards midnight and then the majesty of the sunrise over the mountains. For Rasilainen, the music unfolds radiantly with a tremendously affecting slowly mounting final crescendo.

It is interesting that Rasilainen’s recording is with a German orchestra. As Stig Jacobsson, in his CD notes, sagely points out, Atterberg was never really appreciated in his own country — shades of Berlioz in France — but was favoured much more strongly abroad, especially in Germany.

Back in the studio, Järvi delivers Atterberg’s oddly named Three Nocturnes and the associated Vittorioso in their premiere recordings. The description ‘Nocturnes’ is decidedly incongruous considering that they are not at all serene; on the contrary the music speaks of all hell being let loose - except that the second Nocturne might be more suitably described as such because it is about the heroine’s dream or rather nightmare as she sleeps in the hero’s mother’s cottage. The music comes from Atterberg’s most successful opera, Fanal (The Beacon). Jussi Bjőrling was contracted to sing the young hero, Martin an executioner who instead of beheading a Princess, captured by rebels, rescues her. His escape with her pursued by her furious enemies is the subject of the First Nocturne. The music graphically covers their increasingly desperate, dangerous flight through a hostile, inclement environment with their pursuers closing in behind until they reach the sanctuary of the cottage where the Princess dreams of her March to the Scaffold that is the second nocturne. One is reminded of the same-named episode from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique - Atterberg creating a menacing atmosphere with the terror of the Princess pitted against a remorseless unforgiving authoritative march. The Third Nocturne concludes, after battle music, and the restoration of the Princess, in a glorious life-affirming and romantic gush of material for the happy ending that reminds one of Hollywood serials at one giddy moment and silver-screen romances. Vittorioso is also connected with the opera Fanal. The music was originally conceived as a final movement for Atterberg’s Seventh Symphony before he realised it was superfluous. It was used in the triumphant scenes of Act III of his opera. Thus Vittorioso may be regarded as the discarded Fourth movement of the Seventh Symphony and as a Fourth Nocturne from the opera. The music commences as a rather weary sounding march through difficult terrain and weather before the troops are brought to order and the pace rapidly becomes a responsible quick march. As usual Atterberg’s scoring is complex and dense, aiding the imagination to create vivid and detail-filled pictures. The mood eventually relaxes and warmth is established and the piece ends with a long-breathed, noble, heroic and romantic melody unfolding slowly, reaching towards the refulgence of Rachmaninov.

A disappointing West Coast Pictures Symphony. The CPO Rasilainen recording is to be preferred. The premiere recordings based on the opera Fanal are an interesting addition to the Atterberg catalogue.

Ian Lace



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