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Hugo ALFVÉN (1872-1960)
Symphony No. 5 in A minor, Op. 54 (19432-1958) [53:58]
Andante religioso from Revelation Cantata, Op. 31 (1913) [3:49]*
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willén
rec. De Geer Hall, Norrköping, Sweden, 15-17 June 2004; 23-27 May, 2005*. DDD
NAXOS 8.557612 [57:47] 


This disc brings the Naxos cycle of Alfvén's symphonies to a rousing conclusion.  Each of the other discs in the series (see also reviews of Symphony No.2, Symphony No.3 and Symphony No.4) has featured an orchestra from somewhere outside the composer's native Sweden, but for this final instalment conductor Niklas Willén has returned to Sweden, and with phenomenal results.  I had never previously heard of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, but they are in incredible form here.  They clearly believe in Alfvén, and under Willén's direction turn in ravishing performances of this lush late romantic music. 

Alfvén started work on his fifth and final symphony in 1942 at the age of 70 and did not complete it in its final form until 1958.  Much of the music is drawn from Alfvén's 1923 ballet, The Mountain King, but it is heavily reworked and redeveloped in the symphony.

The opening of the first movement is amazingly impressive.  It is as if the composer has stirred the harmonic languages of Franck, Rachmaninov, the young Sibelius and Wagner in a huge cauldron and, when the brew reached a boiling point of passionate chromaticism, heaved the pot over, spilling the mix all over the icy Swedish landscape to solidify into his own language. The first five minutes generate heat, menace and real excitement.  Harmonies are adventurous and, my goodness, does Alfvén know his way around the orchestra!  He draws dark sounds from his lower woodwinds, plangent sighs from the upper ones and sweeping ardour from the strings.  Alfvén's problem, though, is that once he has poured out these fascinating ideas, he struggles to develop them further.  The first movement falls away from its impressive heights after the first five or so minutes, with much of the movement's remaining 15 minutes consisting of repetition of the slow introduction and exposition and an unconvincing “sound and fury” development that leads back to restatement of that fantastic opening music.  We know where we have come from, but do not seem to get anywhere.  The coda, though, is stunningly written and brilliantly played, with high strings purring away above a stentorian brass chorale.  Putting aside questions of form, though, as pure sound this is exciting stuff.

Given its length and its self-contained nature, it is unsurprising that the first movement is more often performed alone as a sort of tone poem, rather than with its following movements.  This is a shame, though, because these movements contain some strikingly attractive music.  The second – an andante – opens with low rumblings (tuba and bass clarinet in unison?), which lead into a  gorgeous melody of longing. Alfvén's harmonies, again, are utterly beguiling.  The third movement again opens with those low rumblings, before the xylophone takes up at a grim bone rattling theme a la Saint-Saëns, which is quickly put down by an emphatic swirling of the strings.  This is a movement of constant mood shifts, and in its nightmare-world ambiguity it recalled to my mind the scherzo of Mahler's seventh symphony, though in truth it sounds nothing like it.  The final movement is the weakest of the four.  Alfvén plays his hand too early, stating his joyous final cadence immediately and leaving himself nowhere to go.  So he abandons it, returning to it periodically throughout the movement.  In the interim he crafts and develops a gorgeous, lyrical theme that could have been penned by Grieg.  There are splashes of Nielsen in this movement, particularly in the brass writing towards the end.  Again, this is wonderful musical substance, imperfect in form but fantastically orchestrated and played.

After the symphony, Naxos offers a short filler in the form of Alfvén's Andante religioso, a movement adapted for harp, celesta and strings from his Revelation Cantata of 1913. It is a simply gorgeous piece of melodic writing, and should take its place alongside those other beautiful Nordic pieces for strings, from Grieg’s Holberg Suite to Wirén's Serenade for Strings and beyond. 

The catalogue hardly runneth over with recordings of Alfvén's symphonies, but this disc, and indeed Naxos' cycle, faces competition from Neeme Järvi on BIS.  I have not heard any of the BIS performances, but the quality of the conducting and orchestral playing on this Naxos disc would be next to impossible to surpass.  Still, I should note that those curious about the origins of this symphony may want BIS's coupling of the suite from The Mountain King.  Even if that is the case, though, I would recommend purchasing this Naxos disc anyway.  You hardly ever hear anything played this well and the sonics are demonstration class. 

Lovers of the romantic symphony should invest in this disc without delay.  Whatever the faults of this music, its freshness, Alfvén's flashes of original genius and the stunning playing of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra offer more than ample compensation.

Tim Perry 




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