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Hugo ALFVÉN (1872-1960)
Cantatas - Volume 2
Revelation Cantata, Op.31 (1913) [24.38]
Cantata for the 450th Anniversary of Uppsala University, Op.45 (1927) [24.51]
Fredrik Zetterström (baritone), Peter Boman (bass), Charlotta Larsson (soprano)
Malmö Opera Choirs
Instrumental ensemble (op. 31)
Malmö Opera Orchestra (op. 45)/Arvo Volmer
rec. St Petri (op. 31) and St Johannes (op. 45) Churches, Malmö, 10-12 June 2003
STERLING CDS-1058-2 [49:29]

During the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, except for those few lucky enough or with enough opportunity to break into the field of opera and operetta, the sole way in which most composers could obtain performances of music written for the non-domestic market was by the provision of scores for the wide range of amateur choruses and choral societies in existence in most northern European countries. There was, for example, a massive market for biblical oratorios in England, the sheer number of which can be ascertained from the advertisements in many Novello vocal scores of that period, the vast majority of them now totally forgotten. Indeed, apart from the major composers who occasionally penned choral works during the course of careers largely spent elsewhere, very few of the writers of these oratorios and cantatas succeeded in breaking out into the wider field of classical endeavour, Elgar being probably the most prominent among these.

In Sweden, Alfvén’s reputation (and income) depended to a very large extent on his massive output of choral music, much of which he conducted himself in his capacity as director of such major choral bodies as the male-voice Orphei Drängar. In more recent years his symphonies have succeeded in bringing his reputation before the record-buying public, but this second volume of his cantatas bring what appear to be first recordings of two major choral works. The larger-scale of these is the Cantata for the 450th Anniversary of Uppsala University, written for two soloists, a large choir and a massive orchestra including no fewer than four pianos (even at the first performance, conducted by himself, Alfvén found himself restricted to two). The lengthy text by Gunnar Mascoll Silfverstolpe may possess some literary merit in the original Swedish, but to judge from the English translation provided in the booklet it is in the style of the usual bombast and verbiage which one might expect from a purely celebratory ode – imagine the closing chorus of Elgar’s Caractacus inflated to five times its original length – and unlike the Elgar score it has little of melodic distinction to grab the attention in Alfvén’s mainly homophonic setting.

Until, that is, the final movement. Here suddenly Alfvén seizes the opportunities afforded to him by his large orchestral forces to produce a startlingly original sound, and he also makes some adjustments to the provided text to furnish a massive conclusion to his cantata. He conjures up the sounds of the university bells in a manner that reminded me of the opening of the Second Act of Korngold’s haunted opera Die tote Stadt written some eight years before, and if Alfvén did not know the Korngold score (although it was widely performed at the time) admiration for his inspiration is increased drastically. The performance of the whole is excellent, with plenty of body and weight, and the substitution of the rich-voiced soprano Charlotta Larsson for the originally specified contralto is all gain in such a high-flying part. Fredrik Zetterström in the second movement also makes much of a melodic line which only just misses memorability. This is an uneven work, and the celebratory nature of the text means that it is unlikely ever to find itself absorbed into the standard choral repertory, but it is nonetheless valuable as an addition to the growing representation of Alfvén on record.

Unfortunately the earlier Revelation Cantata, nearly the same length, makes much less of an impression here. It is scored for much smaller forces, a semi-chorus and choir with accompaniment of string quartet, harp, celesta, harmonium and organ, with almost incidental parts for two male soloists. The title seems rather inexplicable, since only one very brief passage at the end comes from Revelations, and the majority of the text is derived from the Old Testament. In this context I should perhaps note one oddity in the translation provided: the word vattenfall in the phrase “at the noise of thy cataracts” (to quote the standard Biblical usage) is rendered bizarrely as “waterspouts” – which are something else entirely. The text, assembled by Archbishop Nathan Söderblom, makes much play with dramatically separated voices, with a celestial choir placed in the distance contrasted to an earthly one within the main body of the church. This clearly made a considerable impact at the time of the first performance, with one commentator describing the music as “monumental and great”. However, the recording here, with all except the solo voices placed at a considerable distance from the microphones in a very reverberant acoustic, flattens out the sense of contrast to an undesirable degree, and Alfvén’s response to such well-known texts as “Lift up your heads, O ye gates” comes in consequence to seem somewhat perfunctory. For the voice of God in the second movement Alfvén uses the unusual combination of an alto, a tenor and a bass singing in unison – or at least so the booklet note informs us – but here we are given instead a much more conventional semi-chorus. This is however a work that one can imagine being taken up by choral societies in search of something new – the small orchestral forces required would be an obvious attraction – and we might expect the results to be rather different in a live performance, possibly even recapturing the favourable audience response which is described at the original premičre.

We are given not only the complete Swedish texts of both cantatas but also English translations, together with further booklet notes in German and French. The growing band of Alfvén’s admirers will certainly wish to investigate his large-scale choral repertoire, and these two cantatas (otherwise unavailable on disc) will attract their attention despite the ungenerous playing time of the CD. Those newly coming to the composer’s work, on the other hand, will wish to investigate his symphonies (especially the marvellous Fourth) and orchestral music first.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: William Kreindler



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