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Kurt ATTERBERG (1887-1974)
Symphony No. 2 in F, Op. 6 (1911-13) [31:27]
Symphony No. 8 in E minor, Op. 48 (1944) [29:45]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 2013, Concert Hall, Gothenburg, Sweden

On the basis of an encouraging review by my colleague, Ian Lace, I invested in the first volume of Neeme Järvi‘s projected Atterberg series and I enjoyed it very much. So I was glad to have the opportunity to appraise Volume II. Some of my colleagues considered this disc a while ago: Ian Lace, Stephen Francis Vasta and Brian Reinhart have all had their say, with the latter being the least enthusiastic among them. I thought I would let the dust settle before preparing my own review.

I acquired Volume I as a personal purchase and did not indulge in any comparative listening when I bought it; that’s a task for another day when time permits. However, as it’s a review assignment I’ve subjected Volume II to more close listening and have compared these new recordings with the versions conducted by Ari Rasilainen for CPO, which I’ve owned for some time (review).

Järvi takes a very different view of the Second Symphony as compared to Rasilainen and, for once, the timings do tell the story.  Järvi’s performance, at 31:27, compares with Rasilainen’s 41:00; that’s a very significant disparity. Rasilainen is more spacious in each of the three movements. The opening of the first movement and much of the music that follows has a pleasing outdoor feel to it though there’s frequently strength in the writing as well. The opening melody is especially attractive and Atterberg makes quite a lot of it. In Järvi’s hands the quick music is propelled forward urgently and even the more relaxed, lyrical passages have a sense of purpose. His is a big-boned, strongly projected reading and the nature of the performance is accentuated by the potent Chandos recording.

On CPO the sound is also very good, though perhaps the recording, which dates from 2000, yields a little to Chandos in terms of full-bodied impact. Overall, Rasilainen takes a somewhat more relaxed view of proceedings than Järvi though there’s ample strength too. I think it would be fair to summarise by saying that that if you feel this music benefits from urgency Järvi is your man while those who value a bit more breadth are likely to gravitate towards the CPO version.

The second movement combines an Adagio and a Scherzo and early on we hear a long, generous melody. Atterberg knew how to write a good tune but even by his standards this is an impressive example of his craft. The first appearance of the scherzo material comes at 2:58 in the Järvi performance and is prefaced by tolling horn and piano chords. He is fleet and nimble in the scherzo sections of the movement. Around 8:30 the music slows for the last time and at 9:48 there arrives a ripe, horn-led reprise of the generous tune heard at the outset of the movement; this sees the movement out. You may not be surprised to learn that Rasilainen’s way with the music is rather different: he takes 15:55 to play it, as against Järvi’s 11:26. He’s much broader in his treatment of the opening pages and some idea of the disparity can be seen by the fact that he gets to the start of the scherzo at 4:54, nearly two minutes later than Järvi. The music is certainly given space by Rasilainen but it is marked Adagio after all and the CPO account is very well played and highly persuasive. Rasilainen’s exposition of the scherzo music is no less agile than Järvi’s. He reaches the point where the music broadens for the last time at 11:01 and when the horns lead the reprise of the big tune, now majestic and moving (13:11), the music has a rhetorical grandeur that is almost Brucknerian.

Atterberg composed the first two movements over two years from 1911 and it was in this form that the symphony was first heard, in 1912. He reconsidered the two-movement structure and added a third movement in time for a performance in 1913. The finale’s opening is marked Allegro con fuoco and Järvi’s reading is full of energy, as is the case with Rasilainen, whose performance is vivid. As is their helpful custom, Chandos supply details of all the tempo markings for the movement in the track-listing. Atterberg’s finale has no fewer than 12 different tempi. While several of these indicate fast paces at least as many prescribe slower speeds. I have to be careful here because I haven’t seen a score but my sense is that Rasilainen is more attentive to the tempo modifications and more willing to slow down than is Järvi. That, I’m fairly sure, is why there is, once again a significant difference in the timings: Rasilainen takes 12:11 against Järvi’s 9:46. The timing difference does not arise because Rasilainen is more measured in the quick passages; if anything he’s even more exciting than Järvi in these sections.

I’m wary of saying that Rasilainen gets the symphony “right” and that Järvi doesn’t because until this new Chandos disc arrived my only acquaintance with the work was through the CPO disc. There’s a natural tendency, I think, to favour a performance through which you first get to know a piece. However the differences between the two interpretations are marked and I prefer Rasilainen. There’s no want of energy when it’s needed but he’s unafraid to give the music space; yet his slower speeds never seem to over-extend or over-inflate Atterberg’ s music. Nonetheless, Järvi’s traversal offers an interesting alternative view and is worth hearing.

The Eighth Symphony is a charmer. It is based on Swedish folk melodies, several of which are not only woven into the various movements but also subjected to symphonic development. This use of folk music lends the score a pronounced modal air and I found myself thinking quite often of Vaughan Williams. In this score the differences between Järvi and Rasilainen’s CPO version, again made in 2000, are less marked.

After a short, slow introduction the first movement gets under way with a very attractive, perky tune and the movement proceeds thereafter largely in this vein. This is a highly appealing movement, based around striking tunes. This Gothenburg performance is winningly played. The general thrust of the CPO performance, also well played, is pretty similar. The two conductors are most at variance in the second movement where, once again, Rasilainen shows his greater propensity for expansive tempi in slow music. Near the start we hear an important, gently keening melody played on the cor anglais. The Gothenburg player is very expressive. Overall, Järvi’s reading brings out nostalgia in this movement. If you turn to Rasilainen a rather different picture emerges. He’s significantly slower and in his reading the cor anglais theme is much more deeply felt and affecting. The CPO performance is very beautiful and the expansive speed is certainly justified by the Adagio tempo marking. That said, Atterberg based the movement on melodies that are essentially modest in nature – I do not mean that disrespectfully – and I wonder if Järvi’s more flowing speed is better suited to the music.

I’m not sure if the third movement, marked Molto vivo, should be termed a scherzo. The music is infectious and dancing and both conductors offer sprightly renditions of this very engaging movement. The finale begins with busy, extrovert music and that sets the tone for a cheery movement in which Atterberg deploys a number of ear-catching traditional melodies. Though the CPO performance plays for slightly longer than the Chandos version the difference between the two is not enormous and it seems to me that the readings are not too dissimilar. I’m convinced by Järvi’s performance of this symphony.

Choice between the two conductors in these symphonies is not easy and the matter is complicated by the fact that CPO don’t couple Rasilainen’s recordings on the same disc. Honours are pretty even in the Eighth and while I prefer Rasilainen in the Second Järvi offers an interesting alternative. If you acquire this Järvi I’d encourage you to investigate Rasilainen also in due course.

The Chandos sound is bold and detailed and Stig Jacobsson’s notes are very useful and preferable, I think, to those that accompany the CPO discs, good though those are.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Ian Lace, Stephen Francis Vasta and Brian Reinhart



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