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Kurt Atterberg: The Symphonies (Box Set)
Gabriel Suovanen, Kurt Atterberg, Ari Rasilainen
Kurt Atterberg: The Symphonies (Box Set)
Genre: Classical


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Best Complete Symphonies You Can Purchase
Cory | Virginia | 02/24/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Having heard the sixth symphony on a radio broadcast (albeit missing the second movement because of problems at the station), I decided to go out on a limb and buy the complete symphonies, being completely unfamiliar with Atterberg.

It was a decision I do not regret.

Atterberg's complete symphonies has to be the best CD purchase I have ever made, out of a collection of 500 some classical CDs. There's nothing revolutionary about Atterberg's music. He takes what has been done already and does it better, to the extent that this in and of itself is the revolutionary component of the works. Sometimes, it can even be frustratingly simple, such as how he insists time and again to end a movement or work with a V, I. Yet the depth, the color, the masterful orchestration: Atterberg's music is worth a hear, whether you are a fan of the twentieth century serialism or Baroque period music. Everytime I hear his symphonies, I wonder again and again: how does he do it? He siphons every last drip of gorgeous Scandianvian tones, textures, and cattails out of the orchestra that I think, not even Sibelius had this talent for orchestration, not even in Lemminkainen. And the music always goes right where you want it to go, perfectly, yet without you knowing it's going there. Not cliche, so transient.

Here's the best I can describe it: his symphonies have the color of Respighi's and Holst's large orchestral works, the depth and broadness of Sibelius, the gushing of Mahler, the structured melodrama of Tchaikovsky when not filled with the skipping Swedish joy of Alfven, and the brooding development of Rachmaninoff. Some have compared Atterberg's music to John Williams; perhaps the relationship in that case is in Atterberg's clearly presented grand thematic material, but further associations are hazy.

When I buy a complete symphonies set, I am sometimes overwhelmed and do not know where to go with it. So hopefully this plan will help those who wish to listen:

A) Start with the sixth symphony. The melody, orchestration, and tempo are all balanced well. Atterberg composed this for a Franz Schubert contest and won. (Originally, the contest called for a completion of his unfinished symphony, but it was so controversial, that the idea was dropped.) Atterberg decided not to show at the awards banquet since he didn't want to applaud the victory of another composer. How suprised he was the next morning when he saw the newspaper headlines! Another catch to this story that is less well known is another of his works he submitted, a chamber work, received third place.

B) Then listen to the third. The first and third movements are gentle and have soaring, gorgeous moments, while the second is a loud storm, reminiscent of Britten's storm in Peter Grimes. No movement, no, no movement, compares to the last. Atterberg at his pinnacle for soaring gorgeous colorful orchestration: the twinkle of heavenly bodies at the gust of a chilly breeze, the retired contemplations of fish in the sea, then the applauding grandeur of the cued sun illuminating the twilight sky, a color scheme no advanced digital art could ever render accurately. Evidently, only the first two movements were in the original premier. The third movement came a year later. It was originally a suite, and only after the premier of the first two movements did Atterberg expend it into a symphony with three movements.

Here are Atterberg's programme descriptions of the three movements:
THE FIRST MOVEMENT (in lied form) strives to recreate the mood at the seaside on a calm sunshine-saturated day when the heat haze over the surface of the water makes it impossible to judge distance, and when the sea swells are rolling, in spit of complete calm.
THE SECOND MOVEMENT, `Storm', is arranged in `symmetrical sonata form (i.e. the first theme, second theme, developmental phase, second theme, first theme, and coda passage). The first motif, development, and coda strive to represent impressions of the violent power of a storm among the islands of the outer archipelago. The second theme endeavors to capture the feeling of seeing the calm placid water in a fjord, while the rumble from the open water of a distant black and threatening sea is hardly heard.
THE THIRD MOVEMENT. In the tranquility of evening, when only the swells move the surface of the sea, the eye is enraptured by the fabulous display of colours in the endless view over sea and land; the colours fade towards midnight, the calmness becomes even more complete until at last the night winds slowly begin to blow. The colours in the north-east become stronger, the wind becomes brisker, the sun rises majestically over the mountains, first in cold nuances, then warmer and warmer.

C) The second symphony is stylistically similar to the third, with the first and second movements containing triumphant and broad, yet gentle sections. The second movement is especially colorful, and is my second favorite movement of all the symphonies. It concludes with a blazing theme ice skating across the clouds. The last movement was written after a frustrating performance of his Suite No. 1 that went sour due to poor musicianship. Thus, it's sort of a loud and forceful, though not angry, response, ultimately recalling themes earlier in the symphony. Personally, I think the symphony was satisfactory without the third movement, as Atterberg original had it, but then again I'm thankful for the additional movement regardless of its appropriateness in this symphony.

D) The first symphony sets the foundation for the second and third. This is one of his three four-movement symphonies. Thus, we're treated to a scherzo that is well-worth its insertion. The second movement resembles the slow, broad movements of Atterberg's other symphonies that are lush with surging ecstasy. Usually, a composer's first symphony pales in comparison to later ones, but this is a wonderful first symphony right on the tail of the majestic second and third.

At this point, you may wish to listen to the River piece, included as an extra work in the complete symphony set. It's a lively, natural trek across the Scandinavian mountains to the shore.

E) The eigth symphony is Atterberg's other four-movement work. Once again, a pleasant, light, but fulfilling Scherzo, and a complementary slow movement that is more exploratory and dismally curious in nature than previous slow movements. The first and fourth movements show a more rough side of Atterberg.

F) The fifth symphony, the "funeral," is written in a darker, more abysmal style with more dissonance and conflict than what the listerner is used to hearing. The second movement, however, is characteristic of Atterberg's slow movements, though with much restrained hope: mournful and longing. The forward-movement leading to the climax leaves the listener clinging to every chord progression and does not fail to deliver a fulfilling revelation at the end with a thematic call of the brass and shrilling, pulsating strings. The counterpoint amongst the strings is also gripping. The third movement recalls moments of conflict from the first movement and the serenity from the second, but ends with a heavy waltz, sort of like dancing in 3/4 time with Death himself, except he weighs 500 pounds.

G) The fourth symphony is a smaller work consisting of four movements. The highlight is the second movement, which is the slow movement; it's soft and introspective. The other three movements are loud and violent.

H) The seventh symphony, which is the Romantic, was where I started when I got the set. However, it was difficult listening at first. The first and third movements are loud and heavy on the brass, symbols, and drums/timpani. The second movement is typical slow-movement Atterberg. In time, I came to appreciate it, too, but it's a triffle harder to when I'm treated to music the likes I've never heard before in most of his other symphonies.

I) The ninth symphony is different than the previous eight symphonies. It's more of a cantata of Norse mythology. The writing is somewhat peculiar for Atterberg. The work alternates between violence and stillness, all leading up to the final doomsday battle. The symphony employs several soloists and a chorus.

If you find that you have enjoyed this symphony set and want to hear more, the Piano Concerto and the Horn Concerto may be logical next steps. Also, try some of Atterberg's chamber pieces. He wrote a piano quintet that is an arrangement of the sixth symphony. I believe most of his out-of-print chamber music CDs are now available on MP3 if you have trouble finding the albums.

Also, if you haven't heard them yet, listen to
Howard Hanson's seven symphonies, especially 2, 3, and 4
Melartin's Symphonies 3 and 4
Alfven's Symphony 4
Sibelius' Lemminkainen Suite
Madetoja's Symphony 2
Rued Langgaard's Symphony 1
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger's Symphony 3
Kaljo Raid's Symphony 1
Eduard Tubin's Symphonies 2, 3, and 4
Ture Rangstrom's four symphonies
Lars-Erik Larsson's Symphony 3 and Winter's Tale
Oskar Lindberg's Florez and Blanzeflor and other tone poems
Del Tredici's In Memory of a Summer Day
And of course, Atterberg's other works, including concertos and chamber pieces

All are Scandinavian/Baltic composers except the first and last, who are neo-romantic American composers, the former adopting a deliberate Scandianvian style and the latter having immense depth, color, and intricate tonal structure in his music.

The orchestration, style, and depth of the aforementioned pieces are well compatible with Atterberg's works.

If interested in exploring more Atterberg music, I've compiled a list of recorded works available:

After this CD purchase, I became an immediate Atterberg completionist- all recordings of all his music. (Yet we wait patiently for recordings of his operas to surface.) Will I ever find a composer who impresses me like this all over again? I hope so."
A brazen romantic
L. Johan Modée | Earth | 08/01/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Today, the Swedish romantic composer Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974) is not widely known. His symphonies -- he composed nine -- are rarely performed. But during the first half of the last century, most of his symphonies were hailed with international praise and support. They were performed by such conductors as Herrmann Abendroth, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arthur Nikish, Leopold Stokowski, Richard Strauss, Siegmund von Hausegger, and Thomas Beecham.

Atterberg's lifespan stretched into the second half of the twentieth century. But his compositional style remained firmly rooted in the musical expressions of the late romantic tradition, which flourished around the shift of the penultimate century, 1890-1910. As in the case of Arnold Bax, he was indeed a "brazen romantic." Thus his music is akin to that of Dvorak, Smetana, Bruckner, Mahler, Stenhammar, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Bax, Sibelius, and Vaughan-Williams, even if he had a style of his own. But he was reluctant to link it to early modernism and its atonal chromatism, as, e.g., Mahler, Richard Strauss, Vaughan-Williams and even Sibelius did. The musical world of atonal modernism was almost completely alien to him. His last, and very compelling symphony, called "Visionaria", was composed in 1956, and it has the form of an oratorio for mezzo, baritone, choir and orchestra, using texts from the Poetic Edda. Despite its late composition date, it shows just a few traces of atonal modernism, with twelve-tone rows in some of its melodies. It is basically a complex late romantic work, and, as such, perhaps comparable to the early Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder".

But don't let Atterberg's romantic conservatism prevent you from experiencing the astonishing beauty and power of his music. His symphonies are passionate, intense, very well composed, and often based on old Swedish folk tunes (this is especially the case with the eight symphony). The sound is thus very "Nordic," comparable to that of the early Sibelius (which, of course, was a greater composer than Atterberg - but he nonetheless recognized the quality of Atterberg's music). And in my view, among all his fine symphonies, the blazing first, the nostalgic and powerful second, the pastoral third, the dark and frantic fifth, the parodic sixth, and the enigmatic ninth are truly memorable and moving masterpieces that should belong to the standard repertoire of late romantic music (his second and fifth are my personal favorites).

Ari Rasilainen's Atterberg cycle is the first on disc. Raslilainen is a young Finnish conductor (b. 1959). It is perhaps not a surprise that a Finnish conductor supports an unfairly forgotten Swedish romantic composer. After all, if you love and understand Sibelius' early works, which I suppose most Finnish musicians do virtually by birth, you will probably appreciate Atterberg's music as well. Regardless or not if this holds in the present case, it is clear that Rasilainen is the best interpreter of Atterberg that we now have on record. Because this set is a reference set, in all aspects. First, Rasilainen's interpretations are first class -- he knows his Atterberg by heart. Second, without an established performing tradition behind the back, the German orchestras (Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR, Radio-Sinfonie Frankfurt, SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, and NDR Radiophilharmonie) play with perfect confidence and brio. Third, a spacious and clear recording catches every note.

For a reasonable price, you have a splendid piece of almost unknown music in this set, beautiful and beautifully performed and recorded. It is thus an essential purchase for everyone interested in the aftermath of late romanticism in music during the twentieth century.

Strongly recommended!
The Complete Symphonic Oeuvre of a Swedish Romantic
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 03/06/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This box set (5 CDs) is a compilation of performances issued separately previously. It comprises all nine symphonies of the Swedish romantic composer Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974; pronounced, approximately, 'Atterberry') in sterling performances. And it's all at budget price.

I will not review the individual performances here as there have already been some very good reviews posted here at Amazon for each of the separate releases. [Simply do a search here at Amazon using the keyword 'Atterberg' and links to all of the symphonies will come up.] I would also suggest you give a listen to the sound samples at various of the symphonies to get an idea of what they are like. My own favorites are Nos. 7 & 8, but others might want to start with No. 3 (that third movement is extraordinarily lovely and well-played by Rasilainen and his orchestra.] All of them have been reviewed by Swedish music maven David Hollingsworth. I've reviewed the 7th and 8th symphonies and Thomas Bertonneau has reviewed No. 9. No need to repeat all that here. We all agree that these are excellent performances of symphonies that are in the post-Straussian Romantic style. If you like that sort of music I can pretty much guarantee you'll like these.

Scott Morrison"