Atterberg Symphony No 9
Having rattled off six symphonies by the time he was 40, the remaining 47 years of Atterberg’s life saw just three more composed (and none at all in the final 18). Perhaps this slowing down was due to the international attention accorded the Sixth – much of it negative – or the daunting challenge of Beethoven’s epic example. For his choral Ninth, Atterberg found his ‘big theme’ in the dangerous world of the Cold War, leading him to create a symbolic, apocalyptic text derived from the Icelandic Eddas. The result is a single-span fusion of symphony and cantata with little or no connection to Beethoven or traditional sonata forms.
But if its symphonic credentials are questionable, the Ninth’s internal cohesion is not. The interplay between the two soloists, punctuated by interjections from the chorus (the orchestra, after a brief introduction have just one extended interlude), in a sense takes the place of thematic sonata cut-and-thrust and the symphony covers a wide range of moods during its eventful course. A truly vocal symphony, its performance here is beautifully judged, caught in marvellous sound. Both soloists are excellent, though the laurels rest ultimately with Rasilainen, whose tempi and pacing are perfection.
The symphonic poem Älven (‘The River’, 1933) was written five years after the Sixth Symphony. In outline (too detailed to give here) it invites comparisons with Smetana’s ubiquitous river-poem Vltava, though there are many differences between them. For one, Atterberg’s is much the longer of the two and rather more diffuse: too much so in places, making its rhetoric somewhat overblown in tone. The North German Philharmonic plays it lustily, but this never reaches the symphony’s – or Smetana’s – expressive heights.