ATTERBERG: Symphony No. 9, Op. 54 "Sinfonia Visionaria." Älven - The River, Op. 33 (symphonic poem)
Satu Vihavainen, mezzo-soprano; Gabriel Souvanen, baritone; NDR Chorus and Prague Chamber Chorus; NDR Radiophilharmonie/Ari Rasilainen, cond.
cpo 999 913 (F) (DDD) TT: 60:35

With this fifth disc in a series released one by one since 2000, cpo has issued all nine symphonies by Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974), Sweden’s nearest counterpart of Finland’s Sibelius and Denmark’s Nielsen, although he was born a generation later without quite their sharply honed and distinctive personalities. But his music is nonetheless distinguished—at best and characterful, without kowtowing to the avant-gardes between World Wars I and II, or after II. Atterberg was basically a tonal composer who made dissonance a part of his vocabulary but not a lodestone.

Symphonies that followed the Schubert-cenntennial prize-winning Sixth of 1928 came only after long pauses: 14 years before No. 7, then No. 8 in 1944, and finally No. 9, subtitled “Sinfonia visionaria,” another 12-years aborning. In all but title it is an extended cantata for soprano and baritone soloists with chorus and orchestra, based on the “Poetic Edda” of Iceland, believed to have been written down during the 13th century A.D. Not only does it share folklore with the Teutonic legends Wagner knew and adopted in Der Ring des Nibelung, some of the “Poetic Edda” predates Teutonic borrowing. Thus we have the Aesir of Nordic legend and its first war with the Vanir; Odin rather than his Germanic counterpart Wotan, and Loki rather than Loge, u.s.w. Much of this is admirably clarified by Michael Kube in his notes, which also include Atterberg’s own choice of texts, printed in Swedish, English and German.

In several respects No. 9 is an arcane work that needs repeated listenings to until one assimilates the stark and stoic setting of this material. Atterberg of 1953-56 seemed to be looking ahead as well as back—at legend-in-the-making during America’s quicksand “war” in Korea, and the Soviet Union’s doomed throttlehold on several of central Europe’s populations. The soprano portrays an ancient sibyl who sings repeatedly, “Much I’ve experienced, I see far into the future. Do you understand me?” The baritone is basically narrator, whose duties are shared increasingly by the chorus in this 40 minute work without pause. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” it is not, nor Mahler’s eventually tender coming to terms with his fate. Attenberg’s Ninth is a work of resignation, yet eschews the ultimate curse of despair, despite ferocious pages and a bleak ending.

The singers, both solo and choral, are extraordinarily articulate and vocally well-nigh perfectly cast. cpo, rather than end on the somber note of a “ dragon of darkness...[that] carries on its wings the dead. Now the Vala is silent,” appends a major 1929 tone poem of charming fantasy: “The River—from the Mountains to the Sea.” We don’t find Smetana’s recurring theme heard in Vltava but a sequence of musico-pictorial episodes (humorous, too, when the river reaches the city before it flows into the sea). Atterberg appended a program and the notes include it.

Here as before, Ari Rasilainen conducts with fervor as well authority, and has persuaded not only the NDR Radiophilharmonie and Chorus of Hannover but the Prague Chamber Choir to perform sonorously as well as precisely. The Symphony Orchestra of Rhineland-Pfalz, whose previous music directors have included Christoph Eschenbach and Leif Segerstam, is fortunate to have Rasilainen as its new music director since 2002. Recommended, not least for the amplitude and textural clarity of recorded sound from Hannover, recorded in January of this year.

R.D. (October 2003)