Hugo Alfvén: Symphony No 4 / Niklas Willén, Iceland So

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Hugo Alfvén (1872–1960) was approximately contemporaneous with a number of late and post-Romantic Swedish composers that included, among others, Peterson-Berger (1867–1942), Stenhammar (1871–1927), Otto Olsson (1879–1964), and Ture Rangström (1884–1947). Alfvén’s style, like that of his compatriots, is a generally satisfying fusion of late Romantic and post-Romantic trends with elements of Scandinavian nationalism. He wrote five symphonies, a considerable volume of choral music, and a number of folk-based tone poems and rhapsodies, of which Midsommarvaka (“Midsummer Vigil”) is probably the work by which he remains best known today.

“Skerries,” generically, refers to small rocky islands that pepper a coastline. Alfvén grew up in such an island landscape, the Stockholm archipelago. Nearly two decades before he completed his Fourth Symphony, “From the Outermost Skerries,” he had composed the tone poem, A Legend of the Skerries. Like Mendelssohn, Alfvén was also a talented watercolorist, and his musical works have about them the feeling of vast watercolor canvases. Beyond the washes of color, it is difficult to put a precise style to this music. It is more gestural than melodic—i.e., sweeping passages of great dramatic urgency—and more episodic than developmental. The orchestral effects, from huge swells to the most delicate atmospherics in the winds, harp, and piano are quite masterful, though I’d hesitate to call them novel. Much of the writing and the sound world it evokes bear a resemblance to Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, written just three years earlier. But I detect other influences too. Alfvén’s Fourth, not completed until 1919, contains distant echoes of Liszt and Wagner, especially in the first movement; while the third movement contains even closer echoes of Mahler. The repeated appearance of an otherworldly disembodied sound, wordless vocalise for soprano and tenor, adds another dimension of mystery and beauty to the piece. Think of it as an extended Scandinavian La mer.

The Festival Overture of 1944 is a much later work, but one that is more conservative and backward looking. The insert note does not say if the piece was specifically intended for some public event or ceremony, but it is definitely of a character that would be suited to such a purpose. Pomp and Circumstance it’s not, but it makes for an effective crowd-pleaser.

As for the performances, once again we are faced with a bang-for-the-buck dilemma. Järvi’s set on BIS can now be had in a five-CD box that contains all five Alfvén symphonies, plus a generous offering of suites and rhapsodies, for just under $60. The Fifth Symphony and some of the other pieces were recorded more recently than the bulk of the material, which goes back to the late 1980s. Järvi is expert in this music, the Stockholm Philharmonic is top-drawer, and BIS’s sound is demonstration quality.

For Naxos, Niklas Willén has now given us four of the five symphonies (I expect the fifth will follow soon), though not all with the same orchestra. Still, they are superb, and at Naxos’s prices, even five separate CDs cost considerably less than the BIS set. If you already have the Järvi, there is not enough difference between the two to warrant adding the Willén, and vice-versa. If you have neither, I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help to you this time. I like them both equally. I’d say buy the Naxos CD first, just to see if the music is to your taste. If it is, then you can decide later which way to go.

Jerry Dubins, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8557284

  • UPC: 747313228423

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Hugo Alfvén

  • Conductor: Niklas Willén

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Iceland Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Arndis Halla, Kristján Stephensen, Richard Talkovsky, Sigrún Edvaldsdóttir