Back in student days I remember coming across Kurt Atterberg's name as winner of the 1928 Columbia Gramophone Company Schubert Centennial Competition chaired by Glazunov, the Swede’s Sixth Symphony earning him a handsome, if controversial, $10,000 and the advocacy of Beecham and Toscanini. But then I forgot about him. To my loss, if this Chandos release is anything to go by.
Born in Gothenburg, Atterberg (1887-1974) led a varied life as composer, conductor, cellist, critic and music administrator. Along with Alfvén, Peterson-Berger and Stenhammar, among others, he co-founded the Society of Swedish Composers in 1918, and was secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (1940 to 1953). His bread-and-butter job, though, for more than half a century was with the Swedish Patent and Registration Office (he'd qualified as an electrical engineer from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm in 1911).
Musically, Atterberg claimed, his lineage was Russian/late-German romantic, laced with Swedish nationalism. His teacher at the Royal Stockholm Conservatory, Johan Andreas Hallén, a student of Reinecke and Rheinberger, was a committed Wagnerian. Along with numerous compatriots, Atterberg maintained German ties throughout the Third Reich era (he was published by Breitkopf and the Seventh Symphony was premiered by Abendroth in Frankfurt in 1942). Whether or not he was a Nazi sympathiser, however, has never been properly clarified.
Despite evident programmatic and impressionistic undercurrents, the works on this Chandos release point to a traditionalist strong on motivic working-out and organic climax-building. Atterberg's natural habitat suggests Brahms and Reger – Taneyev and the middle-Europeans occasionally – more than Mahler, Nielsen or Sibelius. Orchestrally, having experienced the medium from podium to within, he can be as knowing and extravagantly scaled as Richard Strauss.
Conceived independently or recycled from other works – the Nocturnes and Vittorioso draw on the opera Fanal (a platform for the young Jussi Björling) – the seven tracks variously essay the tone-poem format. The youthfully aspiring, folk-derived Third Symphony (1914-16) depicts Sweden's West Coast around Lysekil, in three Pictures subtitled 'Haze', 'Storm' and 'Summer Night'. Critical reaction damned the music in Sweden but praised it in Germany. Amazingly, for all its beauty and precocious assurance, it went unheard in Stockholm between 1935 and 1982. An unlikely scenario we know, given current programming values and box-office caution, but the burnished dawn and soaring hymn of the Finale (alto flute taking a starring role) would surely bring the house down at a BBC Prom.
Fanal (The Beacon, 1929-32) is an opera set in 16th-century Germany during the Peasants' War. The Nocturnes – night-scenes more than night-states – are dramatic, contained, and often brusque, in their material: 'The Flight to the Executioner's Cottage', 'The [Princess's] Dream, the March to the Scaffold' and 'The Awakening'. The last, predominantly fast, is a many-sectioned tableau, more than reminiscent of Dvořák's late symphonic-poems. Nothing to do with Berlioz, the second is a tale of dark disturbances, Beethovenian funereal cliché, and abrupt termination. Where Mahler will brood and anguish over death, Atterberg is concerned to keep events moving onwards, opting for literal rather than psychological nuances. The first Nocturne hurries along in a Mazeppa-like way (with a Jaws-like start), echoes of Liszt and Dukas flitting about like so many ghost-candles.
Vittorioso (1962) is a reworking of the originally intended Finale of the Seventh Symphony. Its initial material comes from the third Act of Fanal, a subsequent funeral-march episode being identified with the character of the Executioner. In his booklet note Stig Jacobsson reasons that the piece might be considered as a Fourth Nocturne.
Neeme Järvi is a powerful, filmic advocate for Atterberg’s music. Setting the benchmark, the Nocturnes and Vittorioso are first recordings, the more vigorous moments kept under control, favouring grandeur before bombast (particularly in Vittorioso). In the Third Symphony, taken from a 1997 concert performance, Järvi is up against Rasilainen (CPO, 2005) and Ehrling (Caprice, 1988). Rasilainen offers big moments but can be hasty (the second movement notably). Ehrling, with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, is the more sensually generous, drawing eloquent sounds from his players, and preferring a brisker Finale that arguably gels better.
Overall, though, Järvi's version, toughly grounded and aided by that distinctively airy, detailed, gravity-laden sound we've come to associate with Scandinavian production teams, is the one to have.