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Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 11 (1897/98)
Swedish Rhapsody No 3, Op 47 ‘Dalarapsodi’ (1931)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. 2019, Jesus Christus-Kirche, Berlin Dahlem
CPO 555354-2 [77]rt details here

I have always found it odd that while Denmark, Norway and Finland have their musical giants, Sweden has no one composer who stands above all others. While a novice in the world of classical music could probably link Grieg and Sibelius to their home countries, I suspect that they would not be able to name a single Swedish composer. When the wealth of singers that the country has given the world - Jenny Lind, Jussi Björling, Birgit Nilsson and Anne Sofie von Otter, for example – is considered, the absence of a major composer is even more surprising.

While there may not be any Swedish composers in the pantheon of greats, there are plenty of very good ones, including the subject of this review, Hugo Alfvén. In addition to his composing, he was perhaps Sweden’s most important choral director, as well as a highly regarded painter, and a gifted writer.

The premiere of Alfvén’s Second Symphony – there are five – was conducted in Stockholm by another of these “very good” Swedish composers, Wilhelm Stenhammar. It was a significant success, perhaps his breakthrough work, and the first of his compositions to be published. It is a very substantial work, at over fifty minutes, which is a big ask for a relatively inexperienced composer. Just to make it more of a challenge, what Alfvén wrote about the work led critics to make parallels with the Symphonie fantastique, which had only been premiered in Stockholm a decade earlier. Very briefly, it involves a hero, the sea, storms (both mental and meteorological), and a finale where death is a constant companion. Alfvén certainly had a gift for melody; the work is filled with glorious ones. Does it hold the attention across its considerable length? I’d have to say no, but any five minute section is very enjoyable. It is an illustration of that indefinable difference between genius and competence.

In a lengthy extract from his memoirs reproduced in the booklet, Alfvén writes that his third Swedish Rhapsody is “gloomy and filled with grief” (when compared with the sunny First Rhapsody), with melodies that are “the noblest, most beautiful and most gripping music that I have found in the soul of Swedish folk-melodies”. “Filled” with grief is perhaps overstating matters, but it is certainly introspective for a lot of its twenty-plus minutes, except for two dance episodes, the second when the Devil arrives and takes up his fiddle, inciting the locals into bad behaviour. I should explain that the programme behind the work is the dream of a lonely cowherdess. The melodies are indeed noble and beautiful, and it is a lovely piece. Now the odd bit. The work is divided into two sections by CPO, to allow the option of playing it with a slightly shorter “alternative” ending (from the point at which the Devil arrives). The origin of this second version of the ending is not explained.

This is the third volume of CPO’s series of Alfvén’s symphonic works with these performers, so presumably there are two more to follow. We missed the first volume, but did catch the second (review). Borowicz is in direct competition with two completed cycles from more than two decades ago: Niklas Willén with various orchestras on Naxos (review of Symphony 2) and BIS with Neeme Järvi and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (review). I can’t say that this new release sweeps the board and makes the previous ones redundant. It is very well played, and the sound quality is very good. Both works are performed slightly faster than the competitors, which I generally see as a positive in works by second-tier composers. Borowicz sweeps you along with the overall flow of the “story”, while Willén elaborates some of the minor details more thoroughly (I haven’t listened to the Jarvi). If you are an Alfvén aficionado, then you can buy with confidence. If you already have one of the other cycles, you may not necessarily feel that it is a required purchase. If you don’t have these works in your collection, and you enjoy well-written Romantic orchestral music, this is certainly worth your consideration.

CPO used to be notorious for its rather “difficult” booklet notes, which were often overly academic or poorly written/translated. I thought that problem had gone away of recent, but this one is something of a return to the bad old days. It may be in part due to the process: originally written in Swedish, translated into German, and then translated from there into English. But that can’t explain all its flaws, least of all, the complete failure to explain the significance of the alternative ending for the Rhapsody. Further, there has been some lax proofreading. The Swedish Rhapsody is referred to as Op 48 in the booklet (it is 47), while on the back cover, its track number is given as 9, when there are only eight tracks on the disc, and its duration is shown including the alternative ending.

David Barker

Published: October 10, 2022

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