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Hugo ALFVÉN (1872-1960)
Symphony No. 5 in A minor Op.54 (1942-53) [53:58]
((i) Lento – Allegro non troppo [19:45]; (ii) Andante [8:29]; (iii) Lento – Allegro – Presto molto agitato [7:39]; (iv) Finale: Allegro con brio [18:05])
Andante religioso (1913) [3:49]
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willén
rec. De Geer Hall, Norrköping, Sweden, 15-17 June 2004 (Symphony); 23-27 May 2005 (Andante religioso) DDD
NAXOS 8.557612 [57:47]

Naxos is a company which seems to take a long view and it has embarked on many worthwhile series. This one started with recordings made in 1996 and now concludes with Alfvén’s final symphony, a work which occupied him for a comparable amount time before it was first performed in 1953. He continued to revise it for several years afterwards and was never fully satisfied with the third and fourth movements. Tim Perry has already reviewed this disc (see review) and found the result “phenomenal”, making it a bargain of the month in March. This is only the second recording of the work – Neeme Järvi’s 1992 rendition with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra being the competition. That is available on BIS coupled with the suite from the 1923 ballet The Mountain King – a more logical choice than the brief Andante religioso offered here since the composer drew some of the material for his last symphony from it. Aside from that, it seems wrong to put the makeweight after the symphony since it is not recommendable as a postlude after the drama of the finale and needs to be programmed before the symphony or out. Järvi’s Alfvén series is now available in a highly-desirable money- and space-saving box which Rob Barnett reviewed in 2004 (see review).
The symphony is in four movements with the slow movement placed second, thus following all its predecessors apart from the fourth which inverts the order of the central movements. More than two complete decades separate it from the fourth which was written just after the First World War; Alfvén’s musical language remains rooted in earlier times. It is a large and turbulent musical canvas which makes big demands on the orchestra and requires the conductor to work overtime to keep the piece hanging together.
I share Tim Perry’s view that the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and Niklas Willén meet these challenges very successfully. What is more, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a more convincing reading than Järvi’s. The stopwatch tells us that Willén is slower in every movement and the total timing difference is about 6 minutes but this is not the issue. Willén doesn’t feel slower at all but he does sound convinced by the piece and he consistently finds more in it. Take for example the third movement – described by the booklet as an intermezzo. This is actually one of Alfvén’s most original creations – after a dark and brooding opening the xylophone has a solo before some stormy material from the first movement is interwoven. In Norrköping there is palpable humour in this solo which was missed in Stockholm. The difference between the two versions largely lies in atmosphere and Willén’s version captures this more successfully and holds the attention more consistently – particularly in the big spans of the outer movements. In the slow movement there is a bittersweet feeling here which Järvi only hints at.
I am tempted to wonder whether the composer’s reservations about the work might have disappeared had he been able to hear this recording. This is a version that might just rehabilitate the piece and set it alongside the fourth as the pinnacle of his work rather than some fumblings of old age. In terms of recorded sound, the Naxos has more presence and I find the BIS just a shade recessed although undoubtedly it is very clean.
If the above might sound negative towards Järvi’s series, I should stress that my comments are relative rather than absolute. Indeed, if it is a complete Alfvén series that one is looking for then his is a more consistent one and the cost of acquiring the BIS box is about the same as the five Naxos discs separately. But even if you have that set or Järvi’s separate disc of the fifth symphony, this is an essential purchase. Sorry Naxos but I am going to repeat what I said in a recent review of the last volume of Schubert’s quartets – please box this one up neatly soon.
Patrick C Waller
see also review by Tim Perry

Links to reviews of previous volumes in the Naxos series:
Symphony No 2
Symphony No 3
Symphony No 4



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