Atta Boy, Atterberg!

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ATTERBERG: Symphonies Nos. 7, “Sinfonia romantica” & 9, “Sinfonia visionaria* / *Anna Larsson, mezzo-soprano; *Olle Persson, baritone; Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra & *Chorus; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5166 SACD

Pop Järvi (Neeme) does it again here, giving red-blooded performances of two lesser-known symphonies by the still-not-well-known Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974). But perhaps we should fill in some information for those (and there are many) who don’t know this fine composer. In 1928 Atterberg, then 41 years old but not internationally known, became a household name when he won a $10,000 prize offered by the American wing of the Columbia Graphophone Company for a new symphony written in the centenary year of Schubert’s death. The work was his Sixth Symphony, and it was fine enough to be premiered by Hermann Abendroth and eventually also performed by Sir Thomas Beecham and Arturo Toscanini.

But Atterberg was reticent and cautious about writing a sequel, not daring to do so until 1942. By then, as the liner notes indicate, the more modernistic music of such composers as Bartók, Prokofiev, Honegger and Shostakovich had come to the fore, making Atterberg’s 1928 aesthetics sound a bit old-fashioned, but the composer stuck to his guns. He was going to write a late-Romantic symphony against prevailing fashion. Again, Abendroth supported him, giving the premiere, but this time the symphony didn’t take wings. On the contrary, it fizzled in the concert halls.

But this was not due to any lack of creativity or invention; on the contrary, there are numerous wonderful things about this work. The first movement begins with a fanfare-like trumpet line that continues into the allegro section, where he treated the theme similar to sonata form. He uses the “slumber song” from his opera Fanal, following which he repeats the introduction—this time pianissimo!—and rounds it off with a brief coda.

This is as good an indication as any as to why I find Atterberg so fascinating. He marched to the beat of his own drummer, and did so with great imagination and consistency. No one else sounded like Atterberg, and Atterberg sounded like no one else. About the closest you can come is early Carl Nielsen, and that’s certainly not an insult to either composer. And, although it is clear that Atterberg stuck to his tonal style, he was by no means unimaginative or colorless. This music constantly changes key, and does so abruptly in a manner that reminds me of Eddie Sauter, the great jazz composer whose propensity for shifting tonality on a single note within a chord—what he called “pivot points”—continually made his music colorful and interesting, even when he was arranging the material of another songwriter.

And, as I pointed out in my review of Vadim Gluzman’s recordings of the Prokofiev Violin Concertos, Järvi at age 79 remains as vital and startling in his superb command of an orchestra and emotionally powerful performing style as ever. On his website, Järvi has a quote on his homepage: “I love all the time, every day. From morning till evening, I love music,” and it shows. It’s not just the excitement of the busy passages, either: listen to the way he absolutely caresses that theme from Fanal, making it sing and soothe the listener for as long as it is present. By this point in his career, I would have to say that Pop Järvi is not just an outstanding conductor, but actually one of the eight or ten greatest conductors who have ever recorded. I would place his work, as a whole, even above such formerly luminos names as Beecham and Stokowski (fine but inconsistent interpreters). He earns a place, for me, next to the greatest of the great, and that is as high a compliment as I can pay him. Have you ever heard a lackluster or disappointing Neeme Järvi recording or performance? I haven’t, and I’ve been listening to him since the 1980s. Of course, he is here reunited with his beloved Gothenberg Symphony, the orchestra he led as music director from 1982 to 2004, the longest tenure of any principal conductor in that orchestra’s history. That, in itself, tells you something. (He has also served as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1990 to 2005 and the New Jersey Symphony from 2005 to 2009.)

It’s never easy to maintain listener interest, for instance, through a fairly long slow movement as Järvi does here in the second movement of this symphony. Järvi’s musical style reminds me of the kind of music-making one heard in the old days from such esteemed musicians as Antal Doráti, Erich Kleiber and even, believe it or not, Felix Weingartner (that super-clean musical line that never wavers in tempo but also never sounds uninteresting or emotionally disconnected), and in the case of a composer like Atterberg, whose music—though good—could so easily be performed in an “objective” or listless manner, this is of paramount importance to the listener. The symphony ends, in its final form, with a rousing “Feroce – Allegro,” though originally it had four movements. Abendroth was the one who suggested the three-movement form.

The Ninth Symphony, subtitled “Sinfonia visionaria,” comes from much later, 1955-56. Here, Atterberg takes a page from Beethoven by starting the first movement in a quiet, mysterious vein, albeit with very different musical structure. Atterberg himself referred to this work as “a symphony of evil.” A half-century earlier, he planned to write a cantata based on the old Icelandic prophecy about the end of the world, Völuspá, but never got around to it. He finally got around to working on it as a one-movement, 35-minute symphony with solo voices and chorus, and at that time he realized that the prophecy found in the Völuspá was more accurate than he could have imagined when younger. The text, printed in the booklet, bears some relationship to the Elder Edda used by Wagner for his Ring cycle, discussing the struggle between Mim (Mime) and Odin (Wotan). The eternal ash-tree Yggdrasil, which in the Ring is the tree from which Siegmund pulls out his sword “Nothung,” is here mentioned by name whereas Wagner never names it. One of the weirder characters in the legend is Loki, a god who was the brother of Helblindi and Býleistr and the father of the wolf Fenrir and the world serpent Jörmungandr. The latter has a prominent place in this legend.

Atterberg’s music, though still tonal, has shifted dramatically in focus and form. Once again, he confounded those who would put him in a box by constructing a work that bears absolutely no resemblance to the symphonies that preceded it. Indeed, this symphony is practically an extended cantata for soloists and chorus, a work with a form similar to Schoenberg’s Gurre-lieder. Baritone Persson has a somewhat uneven vocal emission (translation: he’s unsteady on held notes) but a wonderfully dark timbre and superb interpretive skills, while mezzo-soprano Larsson is excellent on both counts. And here it’s not just the Gothenberg Symphony that responds so strongly to Järvi’s direction but also the chorus. Would that more choruses nowadays sang with such tensile strength and emotional conviction!

If anything, I’d say that Atterberg’s ability to morph tonality became even more formidable by this time. He almost uses the tonality shifts as an expressive device in and of themselves. The attentive listener may find this a bit self-conscious, but I don’t; I accept it as one of those musical devices that makes Atterberg unique and unlike anyone else. Not even such contemporaries as Honegger, Frank Martin or Poulenc used tonality in such a unique, almost signature manner. And once again—perhaps moreso here, in fact—Järvi’s performance is absolutely riveting. In the 11th section (though one movement, the work is broken up on this CD into 13 tracks), the constantly descending chromatics and pounding rhythm clearly forebode a bad end to the world as foretold in the legend. In the 12th track the harmony shifts upward rather than downward, but being in a minor key there is no relief from the feeling of doom and suffering. The symphony ends quietly, as if in the middle of nowhere, after another baritone solo.

This is an important release of really great music. I can’t recommend this recording strongly enough!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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