The majority of Alfvén works are known to us through the recordings of Stockholm Philharmonic under Järvi, recorded on the BIS label. Flickers of interest has been shown in this composer by few other CD labels (Chandos and Phono Suecia), so the issue of this disc allows us to inspect a new interpretation of the works.
Hugo Alfvén is a composer generally forgotten in mainstream Europe's concert halls yet he was prolific in the serious and light fields throughout his long life of 88 years. There are numerous songs and folksongs arrangements. Through his music which is steeped in folk-music tradition, he is believed to have represented the soul of the Swedish people. Many regard Alfvén as a bright and merry folksy musician who is remembered by us in works such as Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil) and The Prodigal Son.
At the age of 15 he became a pupil of the violin at the Conservatory in Stockholm. He took a job as a violinist in the Stockholm Royal Opera theatre orchestra where he would have picked up the capabilities of each orchestral section. The colourful (virtuoso) style of orchestration, which was to become a characteristic of his compositions has been compared with that of Richard Strauss.
His knowledge of music widened when he travelled round Europe with the aid of a Jenny Lind scholarship. During this ten-year period he refined his violin technique in Brussels and learned conducting in Dresden. From 1910, Alfvén became Director Musices at the University in Uppsala and collaborated with its male-voice choir Orphei Drangar where he was to remain conductor until 1947. For over 50 years Alvén played a dominant rôle in the Swedish choral tradition as conductor, composer and arranger. His link with the Arts was not confined to music for he was also an excellent painter and writer, and it is with this capability that one hopes he is able to compose for ballet with insight.
The Prodigal Son is based on the biblical legend, the idea being suggested in 1956 by the choreographer Ivo Cramer who wanted to present a ballet to mark the occasion of Alfvén's 85th birthday. The result is interesting for it is composed by a classically-trained musician of the last century who has carried forward the cherished rules of harmony and composition into the mid-20th Century, where a generally more flexible attitude to composition was prevalent.
In reality, however, the ballet suite is more or less a collection of disjointed numbers: it opens with a majestic symphonic quality yet closes with a series of lightly-scored folk dances. It is hard to appreciate just how the score fits the choreography, which is clearly not related to an historic context (e.g. biblical times). The first three numbers which are appealing would ideally fit an 18th Century French Court scene whilst the remainder are a collection of a totally different genre. His approach to ballet writing is certainly not French and, sadly, the finale is rather uninspired. Where The Prodigal Son title fits in one cannot guess without historical knowledge of the performances.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major is an attractively robust work and it is understandable why it was so warmly received at its first performance. The story of its premiere is interesting: the first performance was preceded by a dispute with the Music Academy staff who had threatened to cancel Alfvén's scholarship for studies out of the country. He had been asked by the Academy to hand in the music for his Second symphony to allow the board to inspect what he had done with his time. The work was found to be unscored and incomplete, with the finale missing. Although he hurriedly finalised the scoring of three movements over the summer of 1897 it was unclear how the work would conclude. Nordqvist, who had given the performance of Alfvén's First symphony and had studied the new work in detail, resolved the matter. He maintained that the work was an example of 'outstanding compositional technique' and the Academy renewed the scholarship. It had been said that the new symphony represented the entry of internationalism into Swedish music.
The symphony paints changing scenes of light, sunshine, twilight, and a stormy night. A short introduction herald's the dawn and accumulating warm light of day (a hint of Peer Gynt's 'Morning' perhaps). The tone poem development continues with various themes and a lease of exhilarating and air-scented energy. Eventually, the mood relaxes into a feeling of twilight and a setting sun. Storm clouds gather with a display of orchestral effects and provide a prelude to a stormy night. Unusually the fourth movement is broken into two contrasting sections: The Prelude promotes a mood of tranquillity yet anticipates some disturbance to the calm. Alfvén decided to end the work with a Fugue to enhance anxiety and portray the voice of Death. But the fugue ends before death has struck and life continues, strengthened. (The notes tell us that the composer's writing was influenced by two incidents which nearly cost him his life -an occasion in a sailing boat and whilst swimming.)
The conductor Niklas Willén is one of today's interesting conductors of his generation. From 1992-5 he was Principal Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and is noted for his broad repertoire. He is being regularly heard of internationally.
It is good to find more recordings of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland featured again on Naxos/Marco Polo recordings. Their quality of musicianship and sensitivity to the nuances of romantic scores is appreciated. The mellow acoustics of the National Concert Hall ideally suit the music being played and the sections are well balanced.
Notes are more than adequate and cover much factual detail. They are written in English, French and German.