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Hugo ALFVÉN (1872-1960)
Symphony No. 4 From the Outermost Skerries Op. 39 (1919)
Festival Overture Op. 52 (1944)
Arndis Halla, (soprano vocalise), Johann Valdimarsson, (tenor vocalise),
Sigrun Edvaldsdottir (violin), Richard Talkowsky (cello), Kristjan Th. Stephensen, (cor anglais)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willén.
Rec. Haskolabo University Cinema Auditorium, Reykjavik, Iceland, 10–13 June 2003 DDD.
NAXOS 8.557284 [58’12”]


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Niklas Willén is well on his way towards completing his cycle of the Alfvén Symphonies for Naxos. Unlike some other similar cycles, different orchestras have been engaged: the Royal Scottish National for 1 and 3; the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland for 2 and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for 4.

For those who have not come to the symphonies yet, I can tell you that they are tuneful and show a good sense of thematic development. They are very pleasant to listen to, somewhat similar to the orchestral works of Grieg.

The Fourth Symphony (subtitled “From the Outermost Skerries”) uses a soprano and tenor singing wordless passages similar to the slow movement of Nielsen’s Third Symphony. The subject matter of the symphony involves a pictorial representation of the Skerries - the archipelago near Stockholm. The symphony depicts the movement of the sea during storms, moonlight and sunshine. The composer produced an earlier work, a tone poem entitles A Legend of the Skerries (1902), which inhabits the same sound-world, albeit without the symphonic development of the current work.

Alfvén, a noted water colourist and author as well as being an extremely successful composer, was criticised when this symphony was first performed because it used the two soloists to enhance the colour of the work. In addition there was concern over the erotic content of the programme of the work, telling as it does, the tale of two young souls, and their reaction to the moods of the sea which in turn are symbolic of the human heart. Alfvén went some way towards refuting this criticism, by dedicating the symphony to his then teenage daughter “Marghita”.

There is a pioneering recording which used to be available on Bluebell (ABCD 001) which, according to the RED catalogue is no longer available, but may be available as an import. This is performed by Elisabeth Söderström and Gösta Winberg with Stig Westerberg conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. If I am honest, the earlier disc, recorded in 1979, is superior to the Naxos release, as it tingles with the excitement of discovery. Also, good as Willén is, he is no match for Westerberg in his understanding of Alfvén’s sound-world.

The Naxos recording is better, however, being a modern digital offering, recorded in a sympathetic acoustic, allowing all parts to be heard clearly. The orchestra is certainly well up to the task.

Where the Naxos release scores over the earlier disc, is in the playing time, which whilst still not up to some of the current lengths is expanded by the inclusion of the Festival Overture written by Alfvén in 1944. This is more conservative with the composer writing in popular mode for a wide public. It is great fun and brings this very attractive disc to an exciting finish. In addition the Naxos recording is banded so you can pick up the four individual movements although the composition plays without a break. The Bluebell release is in one band only, although if it is re-released, this may be rectified. One further feature is the cover illustrations being used for this series. This disc gives Strindberg’s Sunset, from 1892, which is superb. All of this for Ł4.99! We don’t know how lucky we are.

John Phillips

see also Review by William Trotter


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