ATTERBERG: Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 3.  Symphony No. 4 in G minor, Op. 14
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ari Rasilainen,cond.

cpo 999 639 (F) (DDD)  TT: 61:55

PETERSON-BERGER: Symphony No. 3, in F minor ("Lapland"). Earina Suite. Chorale and Fugue from The Doomsday Prophets
Norrkopping Symphony Orchestra/Michail Jurowski, cond.

cpo 999 632 (F) (DDD) TT: 71 min.

Whereas Finland produced Jean Sibelius and Denmark gave the world Carl Nielsen in the same year (nor let us forget Norway's Grieg, an older celebrity albeit a lesser talent), Sweden never has produced a composer of world impact. This is not say that composers during the 19th and 20th centuries were faceless, yet none captured the imagination of international audiences as Grieg or Sibelius did earlier on, and Nielsen would do after World War II. This continues to be true despite Sweden's impressive advocacy of its native talents since the early days of electrical recording.

 Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942), born two years after Sibelius and Nielsen, was a prolific composer of folk-influenced songs and piano miniatures, but more fearsomely a Stockholm critic as acerbic as Berlioz had been in Paris. His music was equally influenced by Grieg and Wagner during studies at Dresden (where he subsequently taught until homesickness brought him back to Sweden). CPO  provides superb program notes as well as a chronology of Peterson-Berger's life and major achievements -- also lavished on Atterberg in what is the more valuable of these two issues, simply because the latter's music is more interesting by a considerable margin.

Peterson-Berger's is not negligible -- he was too proficient for that -- but it was old-fashioned for his own time, and certainly so in ours. If it's nature pictures and paeans to Sweden you want, then stay with the music of his slightly younger contemporary, Hugo Alfvén, who wrote a helluva lot more (and more characterfully). P-B's "Lapland" Symphony of 1913-15 ("Same Ätnam" in Swedish) has pleasant moments in the four movements that last 42 minutes, which include a piano among the instruments -- hardly common for the time. But the 1917 suite Earina (from the Greek earinos, meaning spring-like) is more engaging, the opening section especially that suggests sea swells, although the music is a paean to the warm climate of Mediterranean lands. The appended Chorale and Fugue from a comic opera composed between 1912 and 1917 (P-B's tribute to Die Meistersinger) leaves no lasting impression beyond a dutiful nod to baroque rules.

Michail Jurowski, a Russian born and trained conductor, gets spirited and disciplined performances from one of Sweden's seven professional orchestras, although not quite on the level of Gothenberg or Malmo heard on discs that have circulated stateside. The recording, however, is agreeably spacious without gimmickry, and the packaging first-class.

Atterberg, who was born 20 years after Peterson-Berger (1887-1974), ranks with Alfvén and Hilding Rosenberg as a leading Swedish composer despite his protean career as a conductor, critic and electrical engineer in the Stockholm Patent Office. (His name, by the way, is pronounced "Ah-ter-berry"). He came on strong with Symphony No. 1 at age 23, then became a composition student at the Conservatory at Gothenberg! He had a particular talent for symphonic scherzos, yet also a lyrical vein that yielded memorable music in the slow movements on this CPO disc. He was a born rhythmician, and a composer of such sophistication that his Sixth Symphony won the first world prize -- no less than $10,000, a munificent sum worth surely 15 times that amount today -- offered by the Columbia Gramophone Company of England for music commemorating the 1928 centennial of Schubert's death. Glazunov and Nielsen were two of the judges on a stellar panel that made the final determination, although a year later Atterberg confessed that the music was a send-up, designed to touch every national style represented on the panel. Sir Thomas Beecham recorded it for English Columbia, and I wish we could hear it today.

Of all the Swedish composers of his generation, I have found Atterberg the most stimulating -- a musician who lacked only the gift of indelible melody. But everything else is there, and these enlivening performance by a Finnish conductor (yet another of Jorma Panula's gifted pupils at the Helsinki Academy) plus one of Germany's best regional radio orchestras do him honor as well as justice. Again, CPO's sound is hall-ambient and wonderfully lucid, even in loud tutti passages. In sum, recommended for anyone sick to death of Beethoven and Brahms cycles in our deplorably dumbed-down time.

R.D. (Feb. 2001)