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Hugo ALFVÉN (1872-1960)
The Symphonies and Rhapsodies

CD 1:
Uppsalarapsodi (Swedish Rhapsody No.2), Op.24 (1907) [9'54]
Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.7 (1897): I. Grave - Allegro con brio [14'14]; II. Andante [8'05]; III. Allegro, molto scherzando [8'24]; IV. Allegro, ma non troppo [9'36]
Drapa for large orchestra, Op.27 (1908) [10'21]
Andante Religioso from Revelation Cantata, Op.31 (1913) [3'41]
CD 2:
Midsommarvaka (Swedish Rhapsody No.1), Op.19 [13'30]
Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.11 (1897-98): I. Moderato [14'41]; II. Andante [12'13]; III. Allegro [9'28]; IV. Preludio. Adagio [6'16]; Fuga. Allegro energico [10'12]
CD 3:
Dalarapsodi - Swedish Rhapsody No.3, Op.47 (1931) [21'26]
Symphony No.3 in E minor, Op.23 (1905): I. Allegro con brio [10'15]; II. Andante [9'44]; III. Presto [8'15]; IV. Allegro con brio [9'05]
Den förlorade sonen (The Prodigal Son), Suite (1957): I. Gånglåt från Leksand - Sonens gånglåt [4'06]; II. Polska från Orsa [1'30]; III. Drottnings av Saba festmarch [2'17]; IV. Polketta [2'36]; V. Steklåt [2'36]; VI. Polka [2'21]; VII. Final [2'48]
CD 4:
En skärgårdssägen (A Tale from the Archipelago), Op.20 (1904) [16'11]
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.39, Från havsbandet (From the Outer Skerries) (1918-19) [47'21]
CD 5:
Bergakungen (The Mountain King), Suite, Op.37 (1916-23): I. Besvärjelse [4'04]; II. Trollflickans dans [4'30]; III. Sommarregn [2'16]; IV. Vallflickans dans [3'59]
Symphony No.5 in A minor, Op.54 (1942-53): I. Lento - Allegro non troppo [17'03]; II. Andante [7'10]; III. Lento - Allegro - Presto molto agitato [6'47]; IV. Finale. Allegro con brio [16'27]
Elegy from Gustav II Adolf, Op.49 (1932) [4'06]
Christer Johnsson (soprano saxophone); Alf Nilsson (oboe); Ib Lanzky-Otto (horn) (Dalarapsodi).
Christina Högman, (sop); Claes-Håkan Ahnsjö, (ten); Karl-Ove Mannberg (violin); Elemér Lavotha (cello); Lucia Negro (piano); Per-Olof Gillblad (cor anglais) (4)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Rec. Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden, 11-15 Feb 1988 (1); 3-5 Dec 1987 (2); 25-27 May 1989 (3); 4-6 Oct 1990 (4); 17-18 Dec 1992 (5). DDD
5 CDs for the price of 3
BIS-CD-1478/80 [5CDs: 65:49 + 67:33 + 78:30 + 64:19 + 67:58. Total: 344:09]


My very first impressions of Alfvén, some thirty years ago, were not promising. They were founded on his First Swedish Rhapsody (Midsommarvaka) and at a time when I was keen on the ‘Great Symphonies’: Bruckner, Mahler, Tchaikovsky. That cheesy wince-making tune at the start sounded far too ‘Disney’ and ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ for me. Possibly less censorious now, I can appreciate the many charming episodes in this attractive piece. Järvi imparts an eagerness and bubbling high spirits that make it irresistible. Listen to the blatant brass at 11.03. Rustic fun and great entertainment which you will love if you like the Chabrier, Smetana, Enescu. Weinberger, de Falla or Rimsky.

However the core of this set comprises five extremely substantial symphonies. His first three are from what was for him a fecund decade: 1897-1907. The Straussian Fourth dates from just after the end of the Great War. The Fifth, with which he struggled for many years, was written between 1942 and 1953.

The First Symphony is in four movements as also are the Third and the Fifth. It is a prepossessing work, serious, mysterious, gangling, romantic, Lisztian and nationalistic. It has a tramping third movement and a chirpy finale - not everything is ‘sturm und drang’. It is here given a spirited performance.

The Second Symphony is in four movements with the finale being divided between a Prelude and a Fugue. Järvi gives this sea-inspired work a wonderful outing. Every emphatic moment is given with something approaching vengeful violence. The breadth of the sea-swell in the Stockholm Archipelago is suggested by the glum andante. The allegro (III) scuds along with a Berlioz-like macabre élan. The Symphonie Fantastique is surely a presence here as also is the thunderous dancing impact of Beethoven 5 and 7. In the diptychal finale Alfvén lifts his material out of the merely academic with a piercing angst in the prelude. Village piper voices are evoked during the fugue. The final five minutes achieve a glowing grandeur with a chorale rising above the fugal figuration. Surging Schumann-like lightning strikes by the strings counter the formidable tragic thunder of the full brass.

The Third Symphony is more compact than the other two. It was written in Italy at Sori Ligure and so joins the extensive catalogue of Scandinavian works inspired by Mediterranean scenes: Nielsen Helios, Sibelius Nightride, Peterson-Berger Symphony 2, Nystroem Sinfonia Del Mare. The first movement lacks the gravitas we find in the other two symphonies. The spirit of the rhapsodies is in the ascendant. There is a Dvořákian second movement with a sentimental theme that drifts close to 'There's no place like home'. The Presto is a thing of feathery spindrift and this is followed by a joyful post-horn allegro. This is a work is full of high spirits and lightness of heart - more in the image of the Goldmark Rustic Wedding or Ludolf Nielsen’s suites than the typically louring Scandinavian nature-psychological drama.

The Fourth Symphony is dedicated to ‘mother in deepest gratitude’ was premiered at the Royal Academy Stockholm on 4 November 1919. It is luxuriant and over-long but has a memorable profile; a dramatic piece with a great sense of narrative direction. What an imaginative stroke to use two vocalising voices as prominent rapporteurs in the orchestral ‘wash’. There are of course other examples of the use of vocalise including Nielsen's Espansiva, Hamilton Harty's The Children of Lir, Delius's Song of the High Hills, the Gliere Concerto for coloratura soprano, Medtner's Sonata-Vocalise (soprano and piano - recorded by Chandos), Vaughan Williams' Pastoral and John Foulds' Lyra Celtica soprano and orchestra and recorded by Warner).

This opulent score, with Strauss and Tchaikovsky intermittently the models, opens magically. The music is forthright but refined - creating the effect of bubbles rising de profundis into sunlight. The vocalising singers are strong although there is a moment when the demands on the soprano left a hard edge to her voice. This is rewarding music racked with the turbulence of the waves - a Tristan-like vision such as we find in Boughton's Queen of Cornwall or Bax's Tintagel in which nature is illustrated but also serves as a metaphor for erotic love. It is a shame that Bis indexed the episodes rather than tracking each separately.

The work has been recorded by Westerberg with Söderström (Bluebell in their ABCD series) and there is also a long gone Swedish Society Discofil LP in which Nils Grevillius directs the Stockholm Philharmonic. The soloists are Gunilla ap Malmborg and Sven Vikstrom. That recording was made on 7 December 1962. No doubt it will be reissued one day but nothing as yet.

Delving yet deeper you will find a comprehensively documented three CD archival set from Phono Suecia (PSCD 109) which in which ‘Alfvén conducts Alfvén’. The first disc is especially fascinating for an historic 1947 radio broadcast of the Fourth Symphony in which the soprano part is taken by Birgit Nilsson.

Legend of the Skerries is a mood picture in sound without distinctive tunes but with an almost palpable shimmering and gurgling atmosphere. It is the oceanic equivalent of Holst's Egdon Heath or Bax's Northern Ballad No. 2 - two works memorable for their indomitable scene-setting rather than their melodic resource. Alfvén's drenched colour scheme runs the pantone from aquamarine to viridian.

This is the only complete commercial recording of the Fifth Symphony. It is a work that seems to have cost Alfvén dear for he struggled to complete it from 1942 until 1960 the year of his death. About the same length as the Fourth, the Fifth is serious - lacking anything of the light theatre about it. Harsh and violent times raged around Sweden's borders. The first movement was completed in time for the composer's seventieth birthday. That movement was later recorded and issued on LP with Legend of the Uttermost Skerries by Swedish Society Discofil (SLT 33186) conducted by the redoubtable Stig Westerberg. The entire symphony was premiered under Carl Von Garaguly in 1953. The composer worried away at the score revising it incessantly.

Louring drama suffuses the first movement which, as with the other symphonies, is the longest of the four. The andante and parts of the third movement deploy light-hearted woodwind material reminiscing about dances in the perpetual Scandinavian twilight. There are some extremely inventive eldritch effects in the allegro central segment of the third movement. The long finale reels in ‘sturm und drang’. There is a touch of the Mahlerian ländler about the last five minutes of the finale. You will hear and read many remarks by musicologists on Alfvén's Straussian/Wagnerian style. It is true that he ‘paints’ with a rich late romantic palette but this is oxygenated by the ozone of the strand and the chill of the mountain heights.

The suite from Prodigal Son had its premiere to mark the composer's 85th birthday. As with the Third Symphony the spirit is lighter and rustic with closer parallels to the rhapsodies than to most of the symphonies. Country dancing and the polka play a major part in the proceedings offset by a grand sentimental theme at 1.18 tr. 11. The village fiddler, a role neatly assumed by leader Karl-Ove Mannberg, takes a bow in the finale. The Saba march is complete with ringing alla turca-isms, the brass are blatant and bells up.

The Bergakungen suite is more emotionally varied and dramatic than the Prodigal Son suite. Its soul-mates are the First and Second Symphonies rather than the Third and the rhapsodies. The second movement is very Straussian. Those avian shrieks and pealing harp figures suggest Strauss at one moment and Mahler the next. They are so richly decked that parts of this might almost be by the mature Zemlinsky as in the Seejungfrau. Of the four movements only the final one breaks the tormented romantic mood with a concert lollipop in the shape of the dashing Vallflickans dans.

There are three Swedish Rhapsodies by Hugo Alfvén with the most famous being the first the Midsommarvaka.

The Uppsalarasodi starts seriously. The gravity is rather Brahmsian but with nationalistic infusions including some pompous cortege moments. The music shares some of the uncomplicated pictorial character of Smetana inter-cut with active fast music bubbling along in the manner of the Academic Festival Overture. There is some lovely fruity fanfaring at the very end of the piece.

The Third Rhapsody is the Dalarapsodi from 1931. Like the Fourth Symphony this recording is subdivided not into tracks but with index points a practice now abandoned by the record industry. I have never had a player that allowed access of index points (I wonder how many modern CD players have this facility). It is a slight shame that Bis have not reallocated index entries to track-markers. The composer declared a programme for the piece. It involves a shepherdess gazing down from the high summer pastures to the village far below and imagining the dancing (4:30), church-going and merriment. Straussian storm-clouds boil up at 6.23 but predominantly this is music of distanced contentment. A discursive piece with many blazingly exuberant and poetically reflective moments, it ends in calm.

The 1908 Drapa conjures through harp and fanfares the court of King Oscar II. A glowing romantic-melancholy theme for strings rises to heights of considerable grandeur. It has just a hint of nobilmente about it. A lovely piece - lovingly shaped by Järvi.

The Andante Religioso again draws on Alfvén's facility for string themes. It has a strong Scandinavian wistfulness woven into its radiant progress. A delightful piece, drawn from the Revelation Cantata, Beecham would have seized on it if only he had known.

The final CD ends with the tremblingly oneiric and contentedly restful Elegy from Gustav II Adolf - another natural ‘if only’ for Beecham.

For those needing a modern digital recording there is practically no competition. That said it would be an uphill battle to produce a better version than this any way. The closest we come to this is from Naxos but it uses a mixture of orchestras and currently is incomplete. Peter Sundkvist and Niklas Willén are the conductors. We only await the Fourth and Fifth but, as far as I am aware, the Fourth has not yet been recorded. The Naxos details are :

Symphony No.1 in F minor Swedish Rhapsody No. 2 Uppsala Royal Scottish National Orchestra 8.553962

Symphony No. 2 National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland 8.555072

Symphony No. 3 Royal Scottish National Orchestra 8.553729

If by any chance you have come to regard Järvi as a deliverer of routine recordings in massed quantity let this set be a lesson to you. When these recordings were made there was not a single one of them where he lets the tension or imagination slip from his hand.

The extensive notes drawn together from the individual issues made between 1988 and 1993 are by Stig Jacobsson and very good they are too.

Alfvén is a fascinating composer and I am pleased to have been surprised by the strength of the music-making here. It is such a pity that the four volumes of Alfvén's autobiography (1946, 1948, 1949, 1952 - I Första satsen (Ungdomsminnen) II Tempo furioso; III I Dur och Moll; IV Final) have never been translated into English.

This is a great bargain for the enquiring music-lover - exceptional performances and recording quality; five discs for the price of three.

Rob Barnett

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