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CLASSICAL  March 2009

CLASSICAL March 2009

Subject:

Atterberg's Visions

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Tue, 3 Mar 2009 12:30:38 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (99 lines)

Kurt Atterberg
Orchestral Music

*  Symphony #9, op. 54 "Sinfonia Visionaria"
*  Aelven - The River, op. 33

Satu Vihavainen, mezzo
Gabriel Suavanen, baritone
NDR Choir, Prague Chamber Choir, NDR Radiophilharmonie/Ari Rasilainen
CPO 999913-2 Total Time: 60.35

Summary for the Busy Executive: Of gods and the river.

Kurt Atterberg, one of the most profoundly gifted composers of his
generation, made the symphony central to his output, finally winding up
with nine, just like Beethoven and Mahler, and all the while working at
least two other full-time jobs: electrical engineer and administrator
of the Swedish composers' society.  He also had a side gig as an
internationally-known conductor.  For years I knew only his Suite #3 for
strings - a lovely work, which for some reason failed to get me to look
for more.

Definitely my loss, for now CPO has launched an Atterberg mini-series,
which includes all the symphonies and which has revealed a much larger
figure to me.  Atterberg's major symphonic contemporaries - Mahler,
Elgar, Nielsen, Sibelius - needn't scrunch to make room just yet, but
to say that Atterberg's achievement fails to reach their level doesn't
condemn it.  It still has poetry and power of its own.

The tone poem Aelven - The River has its roots in Smetana's Moldau.
However, one notes significantly different points of view.  Smetana
essentially builds from a single tune.  Atterberg builds in little pieces,
many of which have nothing to do with one another.  Also, Atterberg
doesn't describe the course of a particular river. The river provides a
metaphor, an excuse to sing about the Swedish landscape.  The tone poem
assumes, to some extent, the manner of a travelogue - "Sweden: Enchanted
Nature." It runs fairly loose, but it does impress you with the sheer
amount of invention in it.  The episode as the river passes through a
harbor town is especially striking, as foghorns, buoys, sailor songs,
and the sounds of the dock jostle one another - the kind of texture
Ives pioneered.  However, everything else paints nature: rushing water,
crashing waterfalls, still lakes, and, finally, the open sea.  One theme
sort of runs through in various guises, but not in any obviously apparent
way and not all that strictly.  Nevertheless, Atterberg has mastered the
shaping of symphonic time to such an extent that you experience the work
pretty much as a whole.

Atterberg's Ninth Symphony, with soloists and chorus, is an altogether
different affair, both in the composer's attentiveness to architecture
and in his ambition.  Ninth symphonies usually have composers looking
back over their shoulder at Beethoven.  Even Shostakovich's sardonic
Ninth, looks back to that monument, if only to thumb its nose and grin.
One has trouble pinning down Atterberg's Ninth.  Is it cantata or symphony?
I think it lies closer to cantata.  Atterberg set sections of the Icelandic
Poetic Edda, emphasizing those parts relating to Ragnaroek, the Scandinavian
pagan story of the end of the world.  You get bits of it in Wagner's
Ring des Niebelungen.  In fact, "Goetterdaemmerung" (twilight of the
gods) translates into German the Old Norse "Ragnaroek" (fate of the
gods).  Their fate is not a joyful one.  Odin, Thor, and the gang -
they all get killed.

Aside from its position as a glory of world literature, why did Atterberg
choose to set it?  The liner notes suggest that the two nuclear detonations
at the end of World War II spurred Atterberg in this direction.

Atterberg doesn't give us anything like a classical symphony, and yet
the music proceeds symphonically.  Symphonic narrative seems almost part
of his DNA.  Even so, one can see a lot of brainwork here, most notably
in the setting of the poetic refrains throughout the work.  Each refrain
gets its own music, which recurs at each appearance of that particular
refrain.  The music in between differs but leads inexorably to the
refrain.  It's more difficult to accomplish these transitions than it
may sound at first.  As fits a folk text, Atterberg uses a folk-like
idiom (sort of like Lars-Erik Larsson's Disguised God infused with the
Vitamin B12 of symphonic sweep) and in doing so meets and overcomes many
challenges.  The verse is generally in octaves - two quatrains - with
the major break coming with the second quatrain.  The music tends to
move like most ballads: first two lines a unit, third line contrast,
fourth line either a transition or a wrap-up, depending on which quatrain.
This is a long text, and a lot of that can get tiresomely predictable,
but Atterberg has the smarts to know when to vary and the talent to let
you forget his considerable art.  The battle music especially, with its
fanfares from all corners of the sky, gets your blood racing.  If it's
not the greatest symphony of the century, who cares?  It's incredibly
effective.  I'd even call it a masterpiece.

Rasilainen and his North German Radio musicians give committed, exciting
performances of both works.  Baritone Gabriel Suavanen sings with a dark,
haunted quality, and Satu Vihavainen as the omniscient oracle tells of
great sorrow.  Contrary to popular belief, knowing the future makes
nothing easier, in the long run.

Steve Schwartz

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