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.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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.