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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 * (1929-32) [17.15]
Vittorioso * (1962) [8.22]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. live, 20 November 1997 (Symphony); 19-21 January 2015 (other works), Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden
* Premiere recordings

Orchestral Works – Volume 5
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 and Chorus/Neeme Järvi
rec. January 2015, Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden

These are the final two volumes in Neeme Järvi’s survey of the Atterberg symphonies and some other orchestral works. The earlier volumes have been reviewed here as follows: Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3.

The main offering in Vol. 4 is the Third Symphony and I was somewhat surprised to see that whereas every other recording in the series has been brand new Chandos has gone back to a 1997 live Swedish Radio recording for the symphony. Was it impractical – or uneconomic – to make a new recording, I wonder?

Stig Jacobsson relates in his notes that the three movements were composed as individual compositions. It’s not clear from the notes at what stage Atterberg decided to combine them as a symphony – the first Picture at least was performed separately not long after its completion - but they seem to hang together pretty well to me. The symphony was unveiled in its completed form in November 1916 but though it was well received outside Sweden the Swedish critics were hostile. After a performance in Stockholm in 1935 (conducted by Albert Coates) it was not heard again in the city until 1982.

Through imaginative scoring the first Picture, Summer Haze justifies its title. It’s well played here. However, when I turned to Ari Rasilainen’s live 1999 recording for CPO (review), which I have in the CPO box of all the symphonies (review), I found that I preferred it on two grounds. Firstly, as I’ve discovered several times as this Järvi cycle has unfolded, Rasilainen takes a more expansive view, allowing the music a bit more time to breathe. Secondly, the CPO recording is not as close as the Swedish Radio/Chandos sound and that is of no little benefit when listening to music that illustrates a haze. The second Picture – or movement – depicts a storm and Järvi whips up plenty of turbulence in the opening pages. He also handles the calmer stretches of music well. Rasilainen is no less good, though, and on his recording the sound of the orchestra seems better integrated to me. The final Picture, Summer Night, accounts for nearly half the length of the entire symphony in Järvi’s reading. Much of the music illustrates the stillness of night time and Järvi evokes the atmosphere well. However Rasilainen is just as satisfying and once again his recorded sound feels better suited to the music. Elsewhere Järvi is good in the fast passages, imparting energy and power.

On balance I prefer the CPO recording, which is coupled with the Sixth Symphony. However, Atterberg devotees may well find the Järvi disc even more attractive because it contains two recorded premieres in the shape of the Three Nocturnes and Vittorioso. These pieces are linked to Atterberg’s opera Fanal (1929-32). I learned from the booklet notes that the plot of the opera, the title of which translates as The Beacon, concerns events that occurred in Germany during the Peasants’ War of 1525. From the opera Atterberg extracted three orchestral passages to form his suite of Three Nocturnes. First comes The Flight to the Executioner’s Cottage. A young princess, captured by the peasants, is spirited away from gaol during the night by a young executioner who has been ordered to kill her. Instead he takes her to his mother’s cottage. Atterberg’s music is dramatic and colourful; Järvi and his players project it strongly. In The Dream the princess dreams that she is being led to the scaffold. Finally we hear The Awakening. The rebels have been overcome in battle; the princess is released and she marries the executioner. This movement is spirited stuff and it gets a fine performance.

As we shall see, the Seventh Symphony, completed in 1942, is also linked closely to Fanal. Vittorioso was apparently the finale of the Seventh but Stig Jacobsson says in his notes that Atterberg “soon abandoned” the finale because he felt the symphony didn’t really need a fourth movement. Jacobsson goes on to say that twenty years later, in 1962, Atterberg rewrote the discarded finale, making it into the independent piece which he entitled Vittorioso. I must admit to some slight confusion here because in his notes for the final volume in this series, which includes the Seventh, Mr Jacobsson states that “at some point in 1969” Atterberg went to the archives of Swedish Radio, got hold of the full score of the symphony “and tore out the last movement (pages 133-199) … At that moment the Seventh Symphony acquired its final shape.” Apart from anything else this seems to imply that previous performances of the Seventh may have been of the work in its original four-movement form. Vittorioso, which uses material from Fanal, begins as a quick march. The pace broadens around 3:30 and the music is first warm and lyrical and eventually rises to a big, grand conclusion.

The final instalment of Järvi’s cycle brings new recordings of the Seventh and Ninth symphonies. The Seventh uses material drawn from the opera Fanal. Much of the first movement is taut and urgent in Järvi’s performance. Rasilainen recorded it in 2000 for CPO (review). He takes some two minutes less than Järvi for this movement and I think that’s largely because he lingers a little less in the slower passages. By contrast it’s Rasilainen who clocks in with a longer time in the slow central movement – 11:32 compared with Järvi’s 8:35. The two conductors have a very different view of the music. In earlier comparisons I’ve often tended to prefer Rasilainen’s inclination to expansiveness but on this occasion I’m in two minds. The marking is Semplice with quite a lot of the music governed by the further tempo indication, Andante. Rasilainen treats the piece as a genuine slow movement and I find his performance both beautiful and persuasive. Yet, I think there’s a strong case to be made that Järvi’s more flowing tempo is more in accordance with Atterberg’s markings, though perhaps the results are a little less poetic. Stig Jacobsson describes the finale as “an orgiastic dance rondo”. The music is folk-inflected. Frankly, I think Atterberg tries too hard here but Järvi projects it strongly and with fire, which is probably the best approach.

The Ninth Symphony is cast in one continuous movement – which Chandos helpfully split into 13 tracks – and requires two vocal soloists and a mixed chorus. Whether it’s more a cantata than a symphony is an open question. A short orchestral prelude, which plays for just a couple of minutes, is pretty much the only significant passage that is purely instrumental. Both Järvi and Rasilainen have good soloists but of the two mezzos Anna Larsson is richer in tome than is Satu Vihavainen, who sings for Rasilainen. It helps that Jårvi’s soloists are more forwardly balanced than is the case on the CPO recording. Indeed, on this occasion I prefer the excellent Chandos sound in almost every respect. In the orchestral Prelude, for instance Järvi conveys a real sense of foreboding and his deeper, richer recording helps greatly. Both choirs sing very well but Järvi’s choir registers with much more impact. Furthermore, Chandos allow us to hear much more detail – for example the choir’s soft humming underneath the baritone solo in the last few minutes of the symphony registers securely, though not excessively, with Chandos; they are all but inaudible with CPO. Orchestral detail is much more evident in the Chandos recording and is well worth hearing.

As for the performances, Rasilainen’s recording impressed Jonathan Woolf, and rightly so (review). This is another example of his tendency to treat the music more broadly: his performance plays for 40:45, which is a significant difference over Järvi’s 34.18. Generally, it’s in the slower passages where the differences are most marked. In the dramatic and vigorous choral episode towards the end (tracks 14 and 15 in the Chandos recording), good though the CPO performance is, Järvi is tauter and more thrusting, a tendency accentuated by the respective recordings. There’s a marked difference in the closing molto tranquillo section (Järvi’s track 16). This section is dominated by the solo baritone. Olle Persson does very well for Järvi but there’s a strong case to be made that Rasilainen, at his broader tempo, is more atmospheric and poetic. However, overall Järvi takes the palm in this symphony, excellent though Rasilainen is.

I’ve enjoyed following this Järvi series and I’ve found much to admire in it. If pressed to make a choice then over the cycle as a whole I think it’s Rasilainen who better penetrates to the heart of Atterberg’s music but it’s good to have a choice and there are certainly times in these discs – and in the preceding three – when Järvi illuminates the music in a different and interesting way.

John Quinn

Previous reviews
Volume 4: Ian Lace and Bob Stevenson
Volume 5: Ian Lace and Gary Higginson



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