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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
Symphony No. 7 Sinfonia romantica Op. 45 (1941-2) [28.43]
Symphony No. 9 Sinfonia visionaria for mezzo, baritone, chorus and orchestra Op. 54 (1955-56) [34.18]
Anna Larsson (mezzo); Olle Persson (baritone)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Neeme Järvi
rec. Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden, January 2015

For so many composers after a success comes a fall and with Kurt Atterberg that is just what happened. His Sixth Symphony, known as the Dollar Symphony, won a big international prize and was regularly performed afterwards giving the composer worldwide fame. How to follow up this surging romantic work? He waited for fourteen years. By 1942 the musical world had moved on and Atterberg had not moved on with it. Indeed he deeply resented the objectivity of composers like Hindemith, Bartók and Stravinsky.

This is the fifth volume of Chandos’s and Neeme Jarvi’s Atterberg series. I have not heard the previous four but my knowledge of this composer arises from recordings on Bis, CPO and Sterling. I had not heard the Seventh Symphony before.

Its genesis is a little complex but as a prospective buyer of this disc you need to know that this is a deliberately Romantic symphony as its name suggests and not especially Nordic. The title was given by the composer after a particularly luke-warm reception by critics in Stockholm after which he felt rather slighted. The conductor certainly could not be blamed, as Hermann Abendroth was a friend who had conducted the Sixth Symphony. The strongly melodic content, so out of fashion by 1942, was derived from Atterberg’s successful opera Fanal of 1934. It can be found in the middle section of the first movement and some of the strongly lyrical second. The third movement derives from music for the “orgy of revolutionary events” (Stig Jacobsson in his ideal booklet notes) which comes in Act I of the opera. There had been a fourth movement but the composer and his allies had felt uncomfortable about the overall plan of the work which must have seemed too long. One day in 1969 the composer went to the library which kept the score and tore out the finale and reused it as a Symphonic Prelude called Vittorioso, recorded by Järvi on Volume 4.

What we now have is a three-movement work which is of much interest and often brilliantly orchestrated. The movements are (1) a sort of sonata form Drammatico, then (2) the lovely Semplice and finally (3) a dance like Feroce movement which nevertheless has a gorgeous, surging, middle section.

So many composers seem to think a Ninth Symphony has to be a choral one and Atterberg thought so too, with, you might think, ideas above his station as it were. That said, he was certainly a composer of much experience and with things to say about the musical world in which he found himself during the 1950s. This was a period in which contemporary music was much out of sympathy with his personality. He may well have felt therefore that the best way to deal with this stylistic chasm was to write a work whose antecedents can be traced back to Beethoven and the Romantics. In fact Atterberg’s Ninth is the antithesis of Beethoven’s optimistic vision. The Icelandic text called 'Völuspá' tells of the great evil planted in the world, which ultimately triumphs and ends all things. Incidentally evil is represented by a twelve-note chord illustrating the composer’s hatred of dodecaphonic music. Other bare harmonies and textures may vaguely remind some listeners of Leifs.

The text - given in the booklet and well translated - is divided between the chorus, a Bard sung by the imposing Olle Persson and The Vala, a sort of prophetess, sung with mystical intent by Anna Larsson. Atterberg calls it a symphony but had conceived it many years before as a cantata which you may think it should really be. There is however a remark in the score which describes the work as ‘in modo di rondo espansivo’ and what Atterberg means is that there are repetitions of text and music interlaced with a story development which allows a sense of rondo form to be discovered. This material is, in addition, developed in a symphonic sense, and there are contrasting tempi so you will for example find a slow introduction and a scherzo.

In truth, for non-Nordic peoples the full meaning of the allegorical text is difficult to grasp fully with its references to Odin, Loki, Surt and Rym but the overall sense is clear enough.

Neeme Järvi, with this disc, has now tackled all Atterberg‘s symphonies and he is well inside the composer’s language. In fairness so, it seems to me, is Rasilainen on CPO in his complete series (review). The Chandos recording is spacious, detailed and clear, as at the beginning of the Ninth Symphony and there is a palpable sense of atmosphere.

If you are new to Atterberg this would not be the release to begin with. You should try Järvi’s Volume 4, but the Ninth Symphony does represent him at his most personal, moving and sincere so it's worth getting to know and to allow its secrets to grow on you. In any event this disc bring's the Chandos-Atterberg symphony series (Volumes 1 and 2 ~ Volume 3 ~ Volume 4) to a most affirmative close.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Ian Lace



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