Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

For the past five years or so I've posted reviews of classical music CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, in various places on the web: Amazon.com, iTunes and other sites. I'll collect those earlier reviews, and add four or five new ones every month.

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The ecstatic symphonist


As a Villa-Lobos fanatic I've always paid fairly close attention to the music of Kurt Atterberg. Both composers were born in the same year, 1887, and both composers only found true appreciation outside of their homeland, Villa in Paris and Atterberg in Berlin. And yet each was connected, in an almost mystical way, to his own country, and the landscapes of the Amazon and Sweden's Western Islands are reflected in the music in a very basic, and not merely a programmatic, way.

Though both were masters of the large orchestra, Atterberg was by far the better symphonist.  In spite of its genesis as three separate orchestral sketches his 3rd Symphony, written in 1916, has a truly symphonic structure. Meanwhile, the 3rd Symphony of Villa-Lobos, from 1919, is a interesting assemblage of themes loosely assembled around a theme ('War', and specifically the recent Great War), orchestrated with great skill but lacking the greatness of his tone-poems of 1917, Amazonas and Uirapuru.

In the promotional material BIS sends out for this disc they make reference to the "warm and tuneful" music of Kurt Atterberg. This may be a reasonable characterization, since there is a genial flow to much of his music. But listening to the 3rd movement of Symphony no. 3, I was reminded of this passage from Emerson's Nature:
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.
It's this ecstatic connection with the universe that Atterberg, I believe, is communicating in this great passage. Stig Jacobssen, in his beautiful liner notes to this disc, describes Atterberg's reaction to the landscape surrounding a cottage he rented with his family.
The glowing colours of the evening sky in summer soften towards midnight. The air is absolutely still. In the North East, the sky begins to glow again, the breeze rises, the sun climbs majestically over the mountains, at first in cold colours, then warmer and warmer. It is at this moment in the introductory Adagio of the third Picture that the listener has one of the very rare opportunities to hear the alto flute. The dawn becomes a swelling hymn, but the Picture, and the Third Symphony, ends pianissimo.
When the 3rd Symphony finally found its admirers in Berlin, Atterberg was hailed as the greatest writer of orchestral music in Europe other than Richard Strauss. But though I hear parallels with Strauss's music, it's rather Hans Pfitzner's music that comes to mind. The Preludes to Palestrina share the ecstatic feeling that Atterberg attains in the 3rd Symphony. There is a common sound-world, it seems, between Pfitzner and Atterberg, and it's evident as well in the 3 Nocturnes from Atterberg's opera Fanal. These three scene-setting pieces obviously have dramatic as well as musical functions, and there's a strong sense of pageantry and story-telling here.

Atterberg ended up outliving Villa-Lobos by 15 years. When he came to write his 7th Symphony he realized its fourth movement was surplus to the work's requirements, so he worked it up as a separate orchestral piece, Vittorioso, in 1962. As it happens, it shares themes with the music from the opera Fanal, so it can double as a fourth Nocturne.

I wondered at first if we needed another set of Atterberg symphonies on CD, with the excellent CPO set from Germany conducted by Ari Rasilainen still fairly new. But this fourth disc in the BIS series demonstrates different sides to Atterberg's music. The new symphonies aren't always better than those in the CPO set, but there is always something new in Jarvi's interpretations and the excellent (and authentic!) playing by his Swedish orchestra, the bonus works (some premieres on disc) and fine sound makes the new discs the top choice by a hair.

And here we go with another Villa-Lobos parallel, and this one is quite bizarre. I can re-write the above paragraph like this:

I wondered at first if we needed another set of Villa-Lobos symphonies on CD, with the excellent CPO set from Germany conducted by Carl St. Clair still fairly new. But each disc in the Naxos series demonstrates different sides to Villa's music. The new symphonies aren't always better than those in the CPO set, but there is always something new in Karabtchevsky's interpretations and the excellent (and authentic!) playing by his Brazilian orchestra, the bonus works (some premieres on disc) and fine sound makes the new discs the top choice by a hair.

Spooky!

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