There are some composers who simply fail to generate enough visibility to be noticed behind their luminous peers. Such has been the fate of the Swedish Kurt Atterberg, notably successful in his lifetime (1887-1974) but latterly forgotten. Until now, I had always regarded his music as dull and conformist. On the strength of this recent Chandos CD I have been unexpectedly and agreeably disabused of this low opinion. While I still do not regard his music as rich in significance, the personality that emerges from these four very different pieces is gentle, wry, and sometimes mildly subversive. That these four disparate works are from a single pen is enough to reveal that his is an art that conceals art.
The first work on the CD is the Sixth Symphony, with its strange Dollar subtitle, the result of its having won the first prize—ahead of more obvious contenders such as Franz Schmidt, Havergal Brian, and Ludvig Irgens-Jensen—in the ill-conceived, world-wide 1928 Schubert competition. The work is oddly contradictory, at once earnest and arch; nonetheless, Atterberg’s composerly voice has a distinctive tone, if not a very strong character. The Symphony was controversialised by its prize (hence the somewhat unflattering nickname) which may account for his historical sidelining. As it is, the piece is informed with a very likeable sense of irony, and a Nielsenesque rusticity—the finale inescapably recalls the last movement of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony as it might have been parodied by the Danish master (who was one of the 1928 judges…). Setting aside all the palaver, this is a work that repays listening, music of deceptive sophistication—if you were in doubt, note the last ten seconds!—and great charm.
It is followed by a piece that is its exact contrary, uncomplicatedly direct and mellow, the Varmland Rhapsody. This has a pastoral mood that is reminiscent of Holst, and very beautiful it is too. The subdued tone continues in the Suite No. 3, which is an arrangement of music extracted from some of the composers’ incidental music—again, redolent of Peer Gynt. These undemonstrative works act as a buffer of calm between the two more kaleidoscopic symphonies.
The closing work is the strongest, though, Atterberg’s Fourth Symphony. This is, despite its Sinfonia Piccola subtitle, quite a substantial work. Unlike the Sixth, it is in the standard four-movement form, and, we gather, is ‘Composed on Swedish National Melodies’. It opens with a powerful, assertive, and memorable theme but very quickly other elements appear, lyrical, dancelike, and fleeting, which give the first movement a formal richness that contrasts with the plangent slow movement. A tiny Scherzo and an old-fashionedly tuneful finale complete this delightful work.
Do not think that Atterberg’s worth consists primarily in resembling other music, though. It is unsurprising that his composerly vocabulary shares much with his contemporaries, a vocabulary that we, in hindsight, have come to associate with specific composers. Atterberg disposes his musical language in his own individual way, and the results are very pleasing. The Gothenburg Symphony, under conductor Neeme Jarvi, clearly view resuscitating their fellow Swede as a labour of love, and shine in this unradical but charming music.