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Hugo ALFVÉN (1872-1960)
Synnøve Solbaken (Synnøve of Solbakken) (Film Suite) Op. 50 (1934) [27:48]
En Bygdesaga (A Country Tale/Mans Kvinna) (Film Suite) Op. 53 (1944) [33:09]
Elégie (vid Emil Sjögrens bar) (at Emil Sjogren’s Bier) Op. 38 (1918) [12:15]
Norköpping Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willén
rec. De Geer Hall, Norköpping, Sweden, 17-18 June 2004, 23-27 May 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557828 [73:12]


Alfvén is not a composer one might instantly associate with films, especially as his musical career lay between the two Golden Ages of Swedish Cinema. But he wrote three major scores: the two recorded here and the later (1949) one for Singoalla, also the subject of works by Natanael Berg and Gunnar de Frumerie. Both Synnøve Solbakken and En Bygdesaga have appeared on disc before.

Synnøve of Solbakken is a sort of Village Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. It was a Swedish-Norwegian joint production and Alfvén uses Norwegian folk tunes in the score as well as excerpts from his own ballet The Mountain King. From this he fashioned a six-movement suite. Sunday Morning in the Forest appears first here but was not originally the opening of the film, yet it serves this function well. Young Love is a demure episode, appealing rather than passionate, but with sumptuous orchestration, including harps and piano. The second half has some interesting development that one would not have predicted when the piece started. The third section of the suite Poignant Grief-Pastorale is quite effective with its Norwegian fiddle sounds contrasting with material from the first two sections of the suite. Torbjörn and Synnøve continues in the vein of the second section. Langtan is the most effective movement in the suite, with a haunting violin solo. I Solbakken was the music actually played for the opening credits of the film, but it’s Norwegian dances do just as well for the end of the suite. All of the above is recorded rather closely, but in an unobtrusive way that emphasizes both the emotions of the score and the playing of the orchestra. Willén conducts in a less sentimental fashion than Alfvén sometimes receives and it is perfect for this film music. He also has an excellent sense of tempo.

More serious is the six-movement suite from the second and later film score En Bygdesaga. In spite of the seemingly-benign name this is the story of Märit, married to Påvel, but in love with Håkan. The suite concentrates on the music associated with the characters and the important emotions that propel the film’s action. The Introduction immediately and almost violently sets the emotional tone with resplendent brass chords giving way to a more gentle section, still informed by the feelings of the opening. Dreams deals with the musical ideas associated with the main characters and with certain objects that have symbolic value in the course of the film. Alfvén takes this material into increasing tense, and for him, dissonant territory, before reaching a quiet ending. Guilty love is even more violent as it uses the lower notes of the orchestra to portray the feelings of the two main characters. This music is developed into a chorale section with the upper strings playing other material. An excellent example of the composer’s orchestral and contrapuntal skill. As if the previous section were not intense enough, Jealousy shows us the feelings of Påvel - equally intense, though different in kind. This does not last long, changing into a pastoral section, but one in which the tension is not totally dissipated. The composer uses the strings to make this transition in his usual accomplished manner. After the previous sections, the Funeral March makes a good contrast and it is solemn enough, though not totally convincing. The title of the final section, Baying of Wolves, refers to the social ostracism Håkan and Märit will face as they run off together. This is true music of flight, with elements of the joy of freedom mixed in. Again, Willén and Norköpping handle every aspect of this complicated music with aplomb.

The Elégie is actually a tone poem written in memory of Emil Sjögren, the great composer of lieder. It was originally published for piano and then later orchestrated before being used in some incidental music Alfvén wrote for a play called We, finally becoming a part of the Gustav II Adolph Suite (op. 49) taken from the incidental music. Harmonically and emotionally it is one of the strongest of his shorter orchestral works. In his development of the first theme Alfvén maintains some emotional distance, as if writing for a beloved public figure, while the second theme seems more appropriate for a friend or colleague. The opening of the piece with its appropriately scored hollow chords and the magical final notes frame a truly moving experience. The string playing by the Norköpping players is wonderful throughout and Willén ably brings out the various emotional shades of the work.

The major competition on CD to this disc would be Sterling Gramofon CDS 1012, released in 1996. This contains the two film suites, but not the Elegie and was recorded by two different conductors and orchestras, one of them Norköpping. It is an estimable production but lacks both the comprehensiveness of Willén’s outlook on the music and the intimate but impressive recording quality of the Naxos disc. Given the low price and the fact that that many listeners will already have previous volumes by Willén in the Naxos Alfvén series, this disc is a must for Alfvén fans and, due to the specific qualities of the music, even those who do not otherwise warm to him.

William Kreindler

see also Review by Patrick Waller




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