A Crop of Recordings XXII: Atterberg, Frommel, Walton, Elgar, and Roussel

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Kurt Atterberg

Kurt Atterberg

ATTERBERG Symphony No. 6 ● Ian Passmore, conductor; Indiana University Symphony Orchestra ● YouTube (Streaming audio: 33:26) https://youtu.be/KrMykUcSVrA

This symphony won a $10,000 prize from Britain’s Columbia Graphophone in 1928, (an amount worth $150,000 today, then enviably taxed at 6%). No sooner did Kurt Atterberg collect for his melodic, uplifting and rather gorgeous tribute to the hundredth anniversary of Schubert’s death, having out-composed Franz Schmidt’s Third in judges’ eyes, than the world economy collapsed and Atterberg’s new piece garnered its de haut en bas sobriquet “Dollar” Symphony. It didn’t help that commercially motivated “deciders” were involved. And it may not have helped that a first recording came from Sir Thomas Beecham, heir to a liver pill fortune, or that commercial efforts of NBC were underpinning Arturo Toscanini, who later broadcast the “Dollar” Symphony stateside in 1944, making it better known here. Be that as it may, the name stuck, though this many years later the only thing wrong with Atterberg’s Sixth Symphony is that it is richly easy to listen to and the test tube baby of a competition.

The idea behind Graphophone’s contest was a work in the spirit of Schubert’s “Unfinished,” and it is interesting to see what Atterberg thought that meant. There is a Schubertian dreaminess and darkness here, also innocence and happy hope. You can tell why Atterberg won. (It’s not a copy of anything, like Glazunov’s much earlier Seventh Symphony, which recreates Beethoven’s “Pastorale” as an exercise, modulation for modulation.) The Atterberg Sixth, in three movements, is circumspect about being Schubertian. Yet it floats and chugs into being the way Schubert did, the development section gallops along using Schubert’s rhythms for propulsion, and ultimately the message of the music is one of sonorousness and seamless song. 

Amusingly, this parses out to us a bit like Sir Edward Elgar gone Hollywood in the more outgoing moments. The music gleams from below as it strides forth on buttered strings and brass. The slow movement has a mesmeric, rocking, floaty quality which seems never to end and then does…”unfinished.” For a finale, Atterberg necessarily cannot evoke what Schubert did not write, so we encounter a rather haltingly fugal enterprise at first which gathers steam until we are going full tilt in the triumphant manner of Richard Strauss meets Copland. Yes, I know. What on earth does that sound like? Well, the final march is treated in the Shostakovich/Tubin/Copland manner, but the propulsive tune itself is essentially the nervous last movement fugal subject from Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica. You will have to listen to it to know! And the bumptious bells-and-whistles ending is worth the price of admission. As we note, the Atterberg Sixth has had good original champions, and the composer’s own early recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is also available on YouTube, sounding so good for its era that you want to throttle NBC when you once again encounter the wretched sound it provided for Toscanini years later. In more recent times Ari Rasilainen recorded a complete Atterberg cycle for CPO, with good sonics and an appealing interpretive sense. His Sixth dates from 1999. Neeme Järvi’s 2013 Chandos version with Gothenburg seems—not unusually for this conductor with Swedish music—slightly stuck on autopilot.

Ian Passmore is a rising young conductor, and his Indiana University Symphony Orchestra, while not perfect or available on CD, is fully professional here and beautifully engaged. It counts for a lot when a happy combination of microphones meets players this determined to create beauty. The bass is room-caressing, high strings satiny, and the performance aglow. That’s what stopped me dead in my tracks to write this review straight from YouTube. Passmore doesn’t press forward with unneeded aggression. The music simply unfolds. Have a listen. You don’t even have to spend a dollar. 

FROMMEL Symphony No. 1. Symphonic Prelude ● Jürgen Bruns, conductor; Jena Philharmonic Orchestra ● CAPRICCIO C5338 (Streaming audio: 58:11) Live: Jena 5/16/2017 https://youtu.be/3h9s2ohsVYQ

This unusual release fascinates at many levels and pleases nearly as much as it arouses interest. Gerhard Frommel (1906-1984) comes to us from the dark side of the Third Reich divide, a composer who remained in Germany and lived in good standing with the regime, albeit without dogmatic enthusiasm. This symphony was finished in 1939 and premiered by Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1942, at the height of the Second World War. Frommel’s Symphonic Prelude appeared later in response to the 1943 German defeat at Stalingrad, but did not have its first performance until three years after the war. The twist of history, of course, is that “Entartete Musik” by scorned modernist and Jewish composers has long since been revived, but most works composed inside Germany during the Nazi period remain unknown or suspect. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, written in 1937, is just about the only piece of symphonic music to rise from those ashes and achieve world popularity.

Gerhard Frommel did not write a work of populist appeal, but if Wilhelm Stenhammar had been alive in 1939 and thinking again of Bruckner, his music might have sounded like this. The work is in three movements (there is no slow movement) of nearly equal length, the first of which is astonishingly Brucknerian. It leaps off the page with a memorable fanfare like a manic rewrite of the Bruckner Fourth. Frommel was happy at the time, of course, to have official regard thinking along these lines, but if we really listen with hindsight, there is a lot of Mahler in Frommel’s brass writing, too, and touches of Sinding, Walton, Hubert Parry, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Tubin, the Shostakovich of the First Symphony and the “forbidden” Hindemith in other parts of the music along the way. When Frommel turns to the cellos, he sometimes sounds like Howard Hanson. In other words, this is eclectic writing from the 1930s. Unusual for its time, it shows no influence of Stravinsky. But it does hold together. And it contains romantic life. It won me over.

Frommel in some ways is more enjoyable than Bruckner. His music strides along in octaves like Bruckner but never gets stuck in place, noodling. And it’s not alabaster with religion. The tunes are good, the structure makes sense, and you don’t lose interest. The symphony’s central scherzo contains the most successful music. It sounds like a modern rewrite of the second movement from Bruckner’s Ninth, with its pounding ostinato timpani. Frommel manages to introduce slithery trombones and a jazzy sense of snark, and you want to come back for more. Only the finale, which captures your attention with slashes from the Beethoven Ninth’s scherzo, seems to consist of “an introduction to an introduction to an introduction,” developing themes you haven’t quite been able to identify. Be that as it may, it eventually strides its way through fugal trials and tribulations to a slightly punch-drunk final walk home and captures again one’s secret proto-Brucknerian heart.

Frommel’s Symphonic Prelude from 1944, understandably, did not have equal appeal for the Allied Occupation Authorities, honoring as it did German deaths at Stalingrad and receiving its premiere only in 1947. It’s a tighter exemplar of the same Frommel style and worth hearing, though a bit of a dirge, as one might imagine. But then so is nearly every other German composer’s symphonic prelude “to a this or that!” Happy listening!

The recorded sound on this release is spectacularly open and involving, with sensuous brass and timpani. Jürgen Bruns leads dynamic live performances, currently the only choices in the catalog for both works, but superb on their own terms. The Jena Philharmonic, Thuringia’s biggest ensemble, is not an orchestra I’ve heard before, but like nearly all regional German orchestras these days, it plays flawlessly. Frommel’s opening fanfare is worth the price of admission, in any case. And historically, the music fascinates, because it comes to us from behind enemy lines.

Sir William Walton with an Antipodean Admirer

Sir William Walton with an Antipodean Admirer

WALTON Viola Concerto. Sonata for Strings. Partita ● James Ehnes (viola), Edward Gardner, conductor; BBC Symphony Orchestra ● CHANDOS CHSA 5210 (Streaming audio: 65:50) https://youtu.be/l17phVqGBzQ

Non-musical variables always affect the evolution of a composer, sometimes dispositively so. Sir William Walton used to insist with cocktail party winks that his music was entirely inspired by girlfriends. But surely balmy weather, as well as Walton’s late marriage and new life on an Italian island, played into the gradual humanizing of his musical approach. Walton started out tight and sarcastic with the urban high-life of Façade, moved on to the First Symphony’s “locomotives under trestles” British gloom, seemed to change his mind halfway through, and ultimately penned a sunnier, softer, more luxuriant and ceremonial finale than expected. Subsequent works would usually reflect the lush, toasty world he built for himself and his wife after 1950 on the island of Ischia. And revisions of earlier pieces, such as the 1929/1962 Viola Concerto and the String Quartet from 1947/1972 performed here, would lean in a kinder, gentler direction than the originals. Walton even added a harp part to the concerto, as he simultaneously defanged acerbic wind passages. For the rest of the his life, almost as though discussing motivation, Walton would refer witheringly to the grey weather of his childhood in Oldham, Lancashire.

Edward Gardner is our most successful current Walton whisperer, I find. Recent Chandos releases of the two symphonies have revealed a swiftly moving but luxurious Walton from the BBC, with gleaming edges and a sleek, glycerin-like brass sonority. That tendency continues here, the Viola Concerto several minutes faster in the hands of James Ehnes than with Nobuko Imai, for instance, and the Sonata for Strings swifter here than for Jan Latham-Koenig or Paul Daniel on Chandos and Naxos, respectively. Similarly, Bryden Thomson’s Chandos version of Partita is a touch slower than this new Gardner. But all three performances here benefit from the slightly faster pace, which allows more smooth grace than usual into Walton’s eruptive, nervous manner.

Ehnes’s viola tone is beyond gorgeous, velvety and deeply inward. There is something powerfully moving about the long lines and chromatic darkness of the writing, which seems to tell you that the girl said no and doesn’t want to marry you. Similarly, the slow movement of the Sonata for Strings appears to evoke personal romantic shock and despair. David Raksin and Bernard Herrmann are surely in there somewhere waiting to come out. Fair to say, Walton had a talent for making darkness sexy, the way Rachmaninoff did. 

But Walton never lost his ebullience, either. The three movement marching Partita dates from 1957 and was dedicated to George Szell, who recorded it. This version is every bit as good as Szell’s, not to mention the composer’s own EMI stereo version and Bryden Thomson’s. It is in the same slapdash late “divertimento” style as the slithery first movement of Walton’s Second Symphony. This seeming informality, in fact, prejudiced critical assessment of the new symphony at first. But there is something oddly mesmerizing and simplicity-defying about the way both works capture one’s attention and keep asking one to come back for more. And there is something to be said for happiness, too.

Sir Edward Elgar

Sir Edward Elgar

ELGAR Symphony No. 2. Serenade for Strings ● Edward Gardner, conductor; BBC Symphony Orchestra ● CHANDOS CHSA 5197 (Streaming audio: 66:43) https://youtu.be/wk8SImrfFvE

Here is yet another gleaming, luxurious set of performances from Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony, flawlessly recorded for Chandos in the Watford Colosseum. Gardner has brought us galvanizing interpretations of the Walton symphonies with these forces and more recently his serene take on the Elgar First, which I reviewed in Fanfare 41:1. I’m happy to say this release is as enjoyable as the others and utterly consistent in its point of view and sonic quality. If you enjoyed the earlier recordings Gardner has made of English music, you will like this one. 

Edward Gardner is a remarkably unneurotic conductor. That’s the key to him. One looks elsewhere for moroseness in Elgar, to Daniel Barenboim, perhaps. But for straightforward beauty and high energy, it would be hard to find a more knowing interpreter. Gardner’s special talent is for not boring the listener. His performances move along at the swift edge of normal, with a slithery surface elision from the brass that reminds me a bit of the feverish sonority Solti used to seek in Chicago, just a bit glib and hard to get under the surface, while at the same time lingering just enough for slow music to avoid trivializing it. Gardner is not a time beater. This does not sound like an Elgar Second led by Pierre Boulez or George Szell (well, perish the thought!) At 54 minutes, Gardner brings the symphony in at about the same timing as Sakari Oramo and only two minutes faster than Daniel Barenboim, who predictably evokes the end of the world in his slow movement funeral for the bon-vivant King Edward VII.

A special beauty in this new performance is the viola/cello register, which Chandos lays out at a slight distance to seduce and mystify and beguile. The eerie moments at the center of Elgar’s first movement are gorgeous here. There is something about the carpet of bass sound Watford Colosseum can produce which encourages breathless quiet and a sense of subtlety. You realize here that the BBC Symphony is far more than just a good orchestra. And you are ruefully reminded that London still does not have a first-class concert venue. One is grateful these performances do not emanate from the mattress-warehouse stage of Festival Hall or the Barbican’s furry coat closet.There are several benchmark tests for listeners in the Elgar Second. Does the scherzo’s pounding conclusion successfully evoke a migraine headache, for instance? Here, that’s a definite check-mark for “yes.” Does the finale’s long-limbed melody evoke sufficient sense of nobility? Again, a check-mark, though one could argue it ends up a bit fast, and perhaps a slower approach would have given the horns within the tune more time for “nobilmente.” All’s well in the rapt coda, though, expansive, barely audible at times, and deeply moving. 

It’s difficult to recall that this symphony would have once been unknown stateside, but I do. Sir John Barbirolli brought the work to Boston in the late 1960s. My own reaction was simple disbelief at the quality of the music. I could hardly credit my ears. Elgar has come into his own fully in the decades since, no apologies needed. And that includes the early, charmingly late Victorian Serenade for Strings, played here simply and beautifully. This is a splendid release. Recording the BBC Symphony in Watford Colosseum makes for an ideal soundstage. And Edward Gardner may just be Britain’s next Sir Adrian Boult.

Albert Roussel in the Gorge du Petit Ailly near Dieppe

Albert Roussel in the Gorge du Petit Ailly near Dieppe

ROUSSEL Suite in F Major. Pour une fête de printemps. ¹Évocations ● Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor; Kathryn Rudge¹ (mezzo); Alessandro Fisher¹ (tenor); François Le Roux¹ (baritone); CBSO Chorus¹; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra ●  CHANDOS CHAN 10957 (Streaming audio: 70:45) Live: Birmingham 3/7/2017¹ https://youtu.be/Ybed92uPCbc

With every passing year it becomes more evident that Igor Stravinsky, rather than the dodecaphonic Vienna School of disjunct and dissonance, was twentieth century concert music’s primary modernizing force, at least where the works we actually seek out for pleasure are concerned. One romantic composer after another passed through the sieve of Stravinsky’s Neoclassical principles and emerged in some way cleansed and sanitized. That was certainly true of Albert Roussel, who began his composing life a disciple of César Franck, moved on to the tuneful “impressionism-lite” of Vincent d’Indy with his Le Poème de la forêt, and gradually morphed into a polymodal (Roussel’s own term) composer of incomparable rhythmic zest. It is Roussel’s special talent, like Sir William Walton’s, to have survived the transition without losing emotional connection with his listener. For all its choppiness and upbeat snark, Roussel’s music remains capable of moving one deeply and expressing human sadness and sensuality. Stravinsky’s own works, on the whole, are more remote, reflecting his precise but somewhat icy personality. (You might even argue that the only truly beautiful tune to be found in Stravinsky’s music was the borrowed folk song in Firebird.) 

The three works on this release span most of Roussel’s evolution in reverse, the Suite in F (1926) representing an early version of mature Roussel, Pour une fête de printemps (1920) a sort of drudge-like, lumbering counter-romantic immersion in postwar gloom which the composer repurposed from his Second Symphony, and Évocations (1911), Roussel’s contribution to the lush grandiosity of the d’Indy/Strauss/Respighi axis of that day.

Évocations is the least known work here, a three movement, three-quarter-hour sensuous exploration of exotic impressions Roussel acquired while a Naval officer visiting India. It’s beautiful, eerie and definitely “evocative” in a nearly Hitchcockian manner, with hints of Elgar’s Crown of India and a choral ending, but you are unlikely to hear it in the concert hall for logistical reasons. The soloists and chorus, excellent here but expensive to hire, have very little to do, in fact, only performing for a few Franckian minutes in the third movement. But this piece is where all the Roussel traits we recognize from Bacchus et Ariane and the Third and Fourth Symphonies begin to take form: the mesmerizing oscillation of low wind chords, the ostinato thrust of obsessive acceleration, the crash-bang of cymbals and bass drum over huge brass trills, the spiky rhythms….Some of Roussel’s vocal writing is a bit odd, fair to say, in one instance the baritone rattling on staccato with a poetic description at high speed, as if reciting a list or trying to pick up marbles, but it all works. And here and there we encounter the sweetness we know Stravinsky could never take away from him. When it comes to Pour une fête de printemps, we encounter in this piece a break with Roussel’s pre-war style. The early 1920s were not exactly chipper in Germany and France, one scarcely needs to say—a whole generation dead and gone for nothing—and Roussel, like Pfitzner, was affected by the gloom. Roussel’s Second Symphony never emerges from the grey, in fact. It may be the most consistently dreary symphony ever written (pace Shostakovich!)  In any case, it’s certainly a rival to Pfitzner for the honor. Pour une fête de printemps is the movement the composer decided to leave out, because he felt it might drag the symphony down (if possible)! So stock up on your anti-depressants for this otherwise evocative “Spring Festival”!

The release begins with the ever popular Suite in F, where we at last encounter the perky, happy and energizing Roussel we know is waiting to emerge, and in the slow movement the post-Stravinsky short-form of his deeply emotional gift for melody. So now a word about the performances. This is a gorgeous release in sound it would be hard to improve. And Yan Pascal Tortelier has achieved such sensuality and energy with the BBC Philharmonic that one can only hope for and nearly demand that he record the Roussel Symphonies for Chandos with these forces. This is the best Roussel release in years. More, please! 

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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