Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 21 January 2014
The symphonies of Kurt Atterberg encompass nearly half a century, during which his style changed little: the final, choral, symphony of 1956 uses twelve tone/advanced harmonic techniques to create an unusual sound picture in a composition that is essentially tonal. The main characteristic of Atterberg's symphonies is an emphasis on melody, often using Swedish folk tunes, especially in the 7th and 8th Symphonies. The heart of his music lies in the slow movements, many of an intense and reflective beauty - I would mention here the First, Sixth and Eighth Symphonies in particular. Atterberg adds to this a use of colourful orchestration, with some striking instrumental combinations, and frequent experiments with structure, notably in the Second and Fourth Symphonies.
Of these works, the Sixth has the longest recording history after it won a valuable money prize in the Schubert centenary year (hence its nickname, 'Dollar') . The Third, a 'nature' symphony, is also reasonably familiar through older recordings. This CPO box, featuring three leading German State orchestras that share out the symphonies between them, is an excellent and economical way of getting to know the others as well, and makes a valuable contribution to the library of Scandinavian symphonies. The recording quality is excellent, and the conductor, Ari Rasileinen ( a new name to me) has really brought this marvellous music to life.
The Ninth is the odd man out here, arguably not a symphony at all, yet bound together as a single entity by its text, drawn from Icelandic legend. A notable feature is the use of the harp, placing the baritone soloist is the role of the bard, describing the descent of gods and humanity into a Nordic apocalypse. Both soloists and the choirs are excellent, and bring the text to life.
Of the other symphonies, I have chosen two of the least familiar for some extended comment.
Following soon after the tempestuous First, the Second Symphony in F major makes a sunny, untroubled start that gives place to the confident, noble march (an obvious candidate for a film sound track) that will recur throughout the symphony, gathering tremendous momentum. The second subject is a powerful statement by the full brass section, followed by quiet contemplations from the rest of the orchestra. These are developed through to a final section that affirms the positive character of the main tune in a glorious sonic outburst. The second movement is an experiment in structure, with alternating adagio and presto sections that work up their material. The final adagio, reminiscent of the closing pages of Richard Strauss's 'Death and Transfiguration', sounds as if it is about to end the symphony. But Atterberg has decided to add the conventional finale, in an outcome that (as the notes tell us) failed to satisfy him. Yet the finale arguably succeeds in both further developing the work's main theme, and unifies the symphony as a whole by making references to earlier movements. These are worked up into a satisfying conclusion in a massive life-affirming end that raises the roof.
Some reviewers have dismissed the Eighth Symphony as a sign of a failing inspiration, with too much repetitive material. Writing a symphony basically reliant on folk-tunes will inevitably run this risk, and the first movement is a prime case. After a grippingly intense opening,, the tempo abruptly speeds up and the main tune is presented in a variety of instrumental colours, perhaps outstaying its welcome towards the end in an over-emphatic summing up. The following adagio is so much better, with a hauntingly beautiful cor anglais solo that emphasises the sadness of so many folk-tunes when they are given the garb of a full orchestral treatment. The other main theme, a more cheerful cello gambol, lightens the mood somewhat but it still remains wistful and regretful. The two themes are skilfully combined in a major outburst, with the cor anglais leading other solo winds in the coda. There follows a light-footed scherzo. with perky rhythms. In the con moto finale the main theme of the symphony returns in many forms, bringing the work to a joyful end, though minor third intervals provide a nostalgic atmosphere. Not a symphony out of the top drawer - the Fifth and Seventh are better - but never less than proficient and I find myself increasingly drawn to its melancholic spirit: it is as if the composer is lamenting the departure of a vanishing world. I am heartened by the box set notes which remind us that after hearing it on the radio, Sibelius praised it in a letter to the composer. And that's good enough for me.
To sum up, a cornucopia of symphonic riches that will appeal to anyone who enjoys warm-blooded twentieth century tonal music.
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