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