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Symphonies No 3 in D major, Op 10 and No 6 in C major, Op 31.
Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR/Ari Rasilainen
CPO 999 640-2 [68:18]

This is one of those couplings which prompt one to wonder why no one had done it before, for these two symphonies must be among the Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg's (1887-1974) most approachable and memorable works, and together they make a lovely programme. Hearing them in quick succession also emphasises Atterberg's characteristic sound and invention. Heard like this the Sixth, despite its mixed press, is recognisably the work of the composer of the Third Symphony.

There has only been one previous recording of Atterberg's Third, but five of the Sixth. So, what of the competition? First, lets look at the Third Symphony, one of Atterberg's best, which particularly excels in orchestral colour. It was first recorded on a long-cherished LP by the Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by Sixten Ehrling (Caprice CAPO 125) recorded in 1982, a performance still available on CD (CAP 21364). It is a lovely reading which is not superseded by this new version, good though Rasilainen and his Hannover players are. Rasilainen is more expansive in the outer movements - adding a minute to the first and almost two to the finale - and thus emphasising the grandeur of the programmatic elements. The glorious climax of the third movement is thrillingly realised, the brass vividly caught in an enveloping sound-stage, with a finely long-drawn fade-out.

The Third Symphony was written during the first two years of the Great War, and is a remarkably effective and attractive symphony, with a nature programme. Some commentators have been moved to judge it the best of Atterberg's symphonies, and I would not dissent from that. The composer called it Västkustbilder ('West Coast Pictures') and I have also seen it referred to by the English title 'Ocean Pictures' and the German 'Meeressymphonie', all of which seem adequate as descriptions of the symphony's programmatic material. The arrangement of the three movements - two slow movements divided by a quick one - is remarkably effective. The movements are 'Soldis' (translated in the booklet as 'Sun smoke' - 'Sun haze' gives a better idea), 'Storm' and 'Sommernatt'. The exciting storm music in the vivid middle movement is strongly reminiscent of the climax of Arnold Bax's orchestral tone-poem November Woods, which, when I asked Atterberg about it in the early 1970s, he assured me he had never heard.

Writing in the excellent CPO booklet Michael Kube tells us that Atterberg's Third Symphony enjoyed 22 performances outside Sweden before 1924. However, it was little heard, if at all, in the UK, and Atterberg as a composer was, for most music lovers, an unknown quantity until the Schubert Centenary in 1928, when the composer produced his prize-winning Sixth Symphony and its attendant notoriety. In fact in 1928 Atterberg was so little-known in the UK one British critic even went so far as to question whether he had actually written the Symphonies 1-5 that were listed in his catalogue. So he was a totally unknown quantity.

The Atterberg Sixth is a work about which much nonsense was written when it first appeared. It was the winning entry for the Columbia Graphophone Company's Schubert Centenary composition competition, which in 1928 aroused a lot of opposition from a rather starchy unsmiling academic and critical community. The prize included the recording of the prize-winning works and as well as Atterberg, recordings appeared of the British winner, Pax Vobiscum by the now forgotten J St Anthony Johnson (Columbia 9564), and the American winner, Charles Haubiel's symphonic variations, Karma (Am Col. 9065-7).

The Atterberg is a lyrical and engaging romantic score with a flashy even trivial finale. A programme note once referred to its 'robust sense of humour' but I think we might now also appreciate its inherent romanticism. The slow movement is one of Atterberg's most atmospheric and characteristic movements.

The first recording was by Atterberg himself, with the Berlin Philharmonic (Polydor PD 95193-5), no less. Despite its swift tempi the composer's own performance is a remarkably effective one: virile, but never sounding rushed, and a talisman for later interpreters, who by and large have probably not heard the composer and whose tempi are rather more expansive. The Atterberg 78s are a mystery - why have they not been reissued on CD when they are technically and musically so good, and with the added authority of the composer on the rostrum.

Before its early performances Beecham made his recording at London's Scala Theatre on 12 July 1928 (Gray says August) with his RPO (Columbia L 2160/3 a performance which contemporary reports indicated sold very well before the Crash in October 1929) and then gave his only public performance of the work at Queen's Hall on 12 November the same year with the London Symphony Orchestra, four days after its British premiere in Manchester. Beecham's recording is notable for the lovely solo wind playing in the first two movements, and the interplay of the chattering wood winds in the finale. He also finds perfect tempi for the slowly welling big climaxes. The dash for the finale is very much apparent on the last side of the Beecham, and indeed the critic Sydney Grew remarked in December 1928 that in the hall Beecham had played the finale 'in a broader slightly slower manner than when he played it for the . . . recording. Grew added: 'it is important to note that the sudden drop to tonelessness which takes place in the gramophone reproduction for a few bars before the concluding chords is not intended by the composer'. Reissued on Dutton CDLX 7026 it has recently been repressed and is a must for all lovers of Atterberg.

During the war Toscanini conducted the symphony for the only time (21 November 1943), a performance reissued on LP by the Toscanini Society (ATS 1009) and now available on Dell'Arte CDDA 9019. The Toscanini live performance was taken off air on acetate discs and comes down to us in remarkably good sound. It was his only performance of the music. The curious way Toscanini phrases the opening horn lines, as if to play down any romantic associations is but the lead-in to a warring first movement. This approach characterises his view of the whole work and it is notable for its muscular combative interpretation, with plenty of martial swagger in the outer movements and the lovely pseudo-Schubertian tune beautifully moulded.

Thus for many years no-one had heard a modern performance of this music, which had acquired the reputation of something of a curio, not to be taken too seriously. I have to say that when the BBC broadcast a performance by the Göteborg Symphony conducted by Norman del Mar in the 1970s (not so far as I know issued commercially) it came as a revelation. Swedish Radio Archives also used to have, I imagine still have, a 1959 performance by the Stockholm Phil conducted by Paul Kletzki. There is also an LP coupling with Atterberg's Fifth Symphony on Aries, a label noted for its pseudonymous performers, attributed to the "Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lennart Hedwall". Later came the first digital recording, a fine Norrköping Symphony performance conducted by Jun'ichi Hirokami for BIS, issued in 1992 (BIS-CD-553), which is only displaced, if at all, by this new recording on account of the coupling.

I have been able to listen to all these performances (except the del Mar and Kletzki) in writing this review, and readers may be interested in the timings in view of the remarkable differences between the fastest and the most expansive, as a guide to what should be the norm in performances of this music.

Performance Mvt 1 Mvt 2 Mvt 3 Total

(in date order of recording)
Polydor/BPO/Atterberg 8' 35" 9' 12" 7' 05" 24' 52"
Columbia/RPO/Beecham 8' 40" 11' 18" 7' 28" 27' 26"
NBC/Toscanini 10' 00" 10' 56" 7' 44" 28' 40"
Stockholm/Kletzski 30' 45"
Aries/Hedwall 9' 47" 11' 12" 9' 52" 33' 26"
BIS/NSO/Hirokami 10' 00" 13' 18" 9' 52" 33' 26"
CPO/NDR/Rasilainen 9' 08" 12' 58" 9' 00" 31' 06"

Now both Atterberg and Beecham clearly were in the studio recording a prize-winning work, and doubtless their companies wanted the music recorded on as few sides as possible. Even so, it seems most unlikely that they would have essayed such notably faster tempi than the later interpreters of the music if Atterberg had not meant it. At Rasilainen's tempi - in the slow movement over 3½ minutes longer than Atterberg - the music spreads and gives a romantic sheen, but perhaps loses some muscle.

Hirokami directed the symphony persuasively, and his players responded with a will, but his rather analytical recording underlined the slightly thin strings and lack of bloom. For CPO, the orchestra of the Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR also play with conviction, and Rasilainen's view is certainly persuasive, his orchestra responding with some fine playing. I enjoyed this CD and the programme is, in itself, a recommendation; if you want just one Atterberg symphony CD then this may be the one for you. But good as this is, I still feel the opportunity remains for a really top line orchestra in a Rolls Royce recording modern recording - Chandos/BBC Philharmonic are you listening?

For those readers who may be interested in the history of Atterberg's Sixth this recording reminds us of the fuss attendant on the symphony's first performances in the England. Michael Kube tells some of the story in the CPO booklet and very usefully reprints Atterberg's own statement on it at length. The success of the Beethoven centenary celebrations in 1927 meant that Columbia were anxious to find another hook on which to hang a large issue with a broad appeal. The centenary of the death of Schubert the following year proved a profitable godsend to them. There were many records of Schubert that year: it was obvious that there would be, but the aggressive and entrepreneurial Columbia management had to go one better than any of their competitors. As well as over seventy records of Schubert, they gained the most publicity and generated a good deal of controversy with an international composer's contest with a first prize of £2,000 (or in those days $10,000).

The competition was first announced to complete Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and was thus first announced jointly by Columbia and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna in June 1927. There was an immediate outcry in the musical press, and letters to among other The Times of London, one writer describing it as "a tasteless idea". Eventually the rules were adjusted to allow original works in two movements "composed in the romantic spirit". But this great publicity gimmick was beginning to get out of hand, as the rules were adjusted several times further finally allowing the submission of "symphonic works in one or more movements presented as an apotheosis of the lyrical genius of Schubert and dedicated to his memory". The contest was arranged in ten regional zones, the winners in each zone being put forward for the International competition. In the UK the winner was the now forgotten J St Anthony Johnson's Pax Vobiscum. In Austria it was Franz Schmidt's Third Symphony, which received an honourable mention in the International judging. We should also remember Havergal Brian's mighty Gothic Symphony, the first three movements of which were one of the British entries for the competition. Indeed Brian himself always believed he came near to winning the International competition, saying he lost it on the casting vote of the chairman, Glasounov.

The first performance in the UK was in Manchester on 8 November 1928 when the critic Neville Cardus observed that 'the very first notes. . . the string background suggest the pale watercolours of Mahler' and the opening of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. That declared open season for tracing influences and most critics equated the notes of the opening horn theme with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Looking through the press cuttings an enormous range of composers were named by one critic or another in describing the music, including Strauss, Dvorak, Elgar, Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Granados, César Franck, Chopin, Delius and Grieg.

After the London performance Ernest Newman (in The Sunday Times 18 Nov 1928) really went to town, printing music-type illustrations to show the close parallel between the opening theme of the finale and a familiar theme from Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony, and asking whether Atterberg had been pulling the legs of his fellow critics. Later (23 December 1928) he returned to the charge demanding to know whether the similarity of the two themes is purely accidental or whether Atterberg had some sort of joke in mind. Atterberg responded in a rather ambiguous letter to the press which appeared to admit the charge and adding "the laugh has been mine". In fact the laugh was not to do with the passing similarity to Berlioz but to the fact that the second subject tune of the finale is a direct allusion to the finale of Schubert's C major Quintet, which none of the critics had spotted! Michael Kube quotes Atterberg saying "I made a quotation of a well-known Schubert motif into the second principal motif. Through the 'modern' polytonal manner in which I have adorned this theme one can certainly form an idea of what I had in mind. In addition, for me it was a matter of conscience in this prize competition, which had a certain reactionary strain to it, clearly to emphasize that I did not at all concern myself with the competition stipulations but wrote according as I thought best."

It is good to welcome these two symphonies, presented by a team that clearly believes in them. This coupling is a winner.




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