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CLASSICAL  February 2009

CLASSICAL February 2009

Subject:

Atterberg Symphonies 2&5

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 18 Feb 2009 17:44:37 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (121 lines)

Read online at: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/c/cpo99565a.php

Kurt Atterberg
Symphonies

*  Symphony #2 in F, op. 6
*  Symphony #5 in d, op. 20 "Sinfonia Funebre"

Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt/Ari Rasilainen
CPO 999565-2 Total Time: 75.34

Summary for the Busy Executive: Fjords and tors and more.

Kurt Atterberg trained as an electrical engineer and spent almost all
of his working life in the Swedish Patent Office.  Indeed, they had to
force him out of the job, kicking and screaming, at the age of 81.  Beyond
that, Atterberg enjoyed a considerable conducting career and was active
in Swedish composing circles.  This provides more than enough activity
for two, but Atterberg also created a substantial catalogue of mainly
large work: nine symphonies, about five operas, several orchestral suites
and concert pieces, at least three concertos and two string quartets.
His catalogue lacks, oddly enough, many miniatures.  The Patent Office
must have been awfully understanding.  After Atterberg got the gig, he
even managed to study music for an extended period in Berlin and toured
as a conductor internationally.

In general, Atterberg writes as a late Romantic nationalist, although
he considered himself a classicist-nationalist.  The symphonic form
attracted him, and he wrote his first four between 1908 and 1918, one
roughly every two years.  He tended to avoid the "organic" forms favored
by post-Wagnerians like Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Ture Rangstroem,
using instead classical forms fitted to a Nineteenth-Century harmonic
idiom and strongly influenced melodically by Scandinavian writers like
Grieg and Stenhammar.  I find him near early Nielsen or even Sibelius
in outlook, but although at times he comes close, without those composers'
power and range at their best.

In three substantial movements, the Symphony #2 fulfills all of a
listener's preconceptions of what a Swedish symphony should sound like.
Horns and double winds make their presence known.  The music often
lies in the middle register.  A pastoral feeling predominates.  However,
Atterberg offers more.  In contrast with the symphonies of Hugo Alfven,
for example, this score cleaves to symphonic forms like sonata-allegro
fairly tightly and with a great deal of sophistication, rather than fall
back on essentially programmatic or even operatic procedures.  The first
movement works out exposition of two thematic groups, development, and
recapitulation, for example, with plenty of thematic transformations and
an elegant rhythmic "shadow" argument to the melodic ones.

However, as fine as the first movement is, the second tops it.  Boldly
conceived as a slow movement interrupted by two scherzi, it begins with
a long-breathing theme that can make strong men weep before its beauty.
At least, that's the image it gave dry-eyed, cynical me.  One can hear
bits of Wagner, Bruckner, Sibelius, even Mahler in it, but it nevertheless
comes through as something strikingly individual, with harmonic sequences
simultaneously out-of-the-way, bone-simple, and extremely affecting.
This winds down into the first appearance of the scherzo.  I find it
hard to describe the transition from one section to another.  Unlike
my earlier comment, the scherzo doesn't really interrupt; rather, the
cantabile seems to melt into the scherzo.  And the scherzo drives, pounds,
and stomps.  It's as if you're living through your first major heart
attack.  The adagio returns in the same way it left, sort of melting out
of the scherzo.  Now, however, both the cantabile theme and the scherzo
begin to intermingle within the context of the adagio.  This lasts through
the second formal appearance of the scherzo.  I must say that you don't
need a degree in musicology or theory to pick any of this up.  The themes
are so distinct and so memorable, you can't help but hear this.  Who
knew that you could combine them?  Atterberg might have felt like the
chef who invented fried ice cream.  Furthermore, he saves the best for
last, turning the minor-key cantabile into major to create with the
splendor of brass a Mahler-like apotheosis.  The symphony could well
have ended at this point, and indeed Atterberg originally did end it
with the second movement.  Critics, however, complained that he had
short-changed them, and gradually he came to agree with them.  A couple
of years later, he added a third movement.  This new finale, fine in
itself, nevertheless doesn't give you anything new.  Indeed, it provides
the same sort of narrative progression as the first.  I find myself more
sympathetic to Atterberg's original impulse: the symphony seems stronger
without the second thoughts.

The Fifth Symphony (1922) appeared after a five-year struggle, during
which Atterberg suffered an artistic crisis and doubted his talent.  He
worked and reworked the score.  Although one has to jump through mental
hoops to describe Atterberg as a true modernist (Modernism didn't really
take hold in Scandinavia until the Thirties and Forties, arguably due
to the fact that these countries stayed out of the First World War),
nevertheless the symphony shows some assimilation of new ideas, and chord
formations and progressions are slightly more daring.  Atterberg makes
some use of a musical motto, a mainly harmonic idea, but fails to work
it into the symphony's structural depths.  Nevertheless, the first
movement is as lean and athletic as Nielsen.  The second, the most
conservative and the movement which gives the symphony its subtitle,
begins as a lament which melds into a funeral march. The cohesiveness
of the movement and Atterberg's ability to build powerful climaxes impress
the most.  The third movement follows without a break as a quick march,
with the motto turned into fanfares.  The main theme speeds up and
martializes the main theme of the second movement.  Ideas from the first
movement also show up through the beginning part of the first movement,
in a somewhat scattershot way.  However, at a certain point, the meter
changes to triple-time.  We get a grotesque waltz on the main idea, and
from then on, the symphony goes like gangbusters.  Again, the main idea
is simply the chief theme of the second movement in a different suit,
so we're surprised and not surprised when the second-movement lament
comes back in close to its original form.  Atterberg handles the transition
superbly and even manages us one last revelation - a coda based entirely
on the motto.  This is superior composition brainwork.

Finnish conductor Rasilainen and his German players do well delineating
each symphony's architecture, although inner parts are slightly murky.
Rasilainen does particularly well capturing the balance between Atterberg's
passion and his emotional reserve.  CPO has released the complete
symphonies with these forces (CPO 777118) in a 5-CD set.  I'm seriously
considering it.

Steve Schwartz

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