Déjà Review: this review was first published in February 2005 and the recording is still available.

Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 39, From the Outer Skerries (1919)
Festival Overture, Op. 52 (1944)
Arnis Halla (soprano), Johann Valdimarsson (tenor), Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willén
rec. 2003, University Cinema Auditorium, Reykjavik, Iceland
Naxos 8.557284 [58]

Alfvén is yet another of the many splendid 20th Century composers whose music has become hamstrung by a widening paradox: never before has it been easier to acquire first-rate recordings of so much of his oeuvre (this new Naxos cycle of the symphonies being a case in point), yet for those who come to love his music through those recordings, the prospects of hearing an Alfvén composition “live” have never been bleaker. Despite their accessibility and melodic warmth, Alfvén’s symphonies have never seemed to “take” outside of Scandinavia, even back during the Koussevitzky/ Stokowski/ Beecham era, when the music-loving public embraced (or at least tolerated) a broader repertoire than is now the case.

Alfvén’s “Greatest Hit”, of course, was the delectable Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 (“Midsummer Vigil”), one of those rare pieces that’s almost impossible not to like. But most contemporary music directors (for reasons I cannot fathom, beyond their understandable wish to remain gainfully employed) have generally stopped programming tone poems, suites, rhapsodies, Strauss waltzes, or any other form of “short” orchestral fare that might inconvenience the board members who’d be perfectly content for every concert to follow the overture-concerto-symphony template, Midsommarvarka has virtually disappeared too. Perhaps if Alfvén had a superstar-conductor to “champion” his works in America and the U.K. (the way Beecham and Koussevitzky championed Sibelius), Nah, that won’t work either; first of all, there aren’t any conductors with the sort of charisma Beecham and Koussevitzky had, and secondly – as much as I enjoy most of his music, Alfvén just isn’t quite in the same league as his Finnish near-contemporary; Sibelius was seven years the senior.

In the strange and haunting Fourth Symphony, though, Alfvén creates a uniquely personal sound-world that elevates him, temporarily, to the first rank of Late Romantics. In the Fourth, as in no other of his symphonies, Alfvén combines his customary skill at evoking landscape-moods with a very sustained paean to human sensuality (well, okay, is was really sexuality but Alfvén didn’t “go there” as explicitly in his music as he did in his autobiography; now if Strindberg had been a composer…!). Although Alfvén rather disingenuously told the press that his new symphony was “about” the love of parent for child, and dedicated the premier to his adolescent daughter, Margita, the wordless soprano/tenor vocalise that twines in and out and round about the lush, at times even throbbing, orchestral sonorities made it perfectly clear to most listeners and critics, during the first performance on 4 November, 1919, that the composer had grown-up ardor on his mind, rather than parental affection. Well, one certainly hopes so, at any rate….

Hearing the score today, especially in relation to such earthy and unequivocal contemporaneous works as Le Sacre and Daphnis , Alfvén’s idealized sirens’ song seems quite chaste and decorous; it requires of us quite a stretch of the societal imagination to understand what so exercised the disdainful critics and clucking prudes that castigated the work after its Stockholm premier; describing it as “immoral”. Within days of the first performance, the work had already been tagged “The Erotica Symphony”! (Now there’s an Ingmar Bergman film just waiting to be made!)

Oh, yes, the “Skerries” part of it – that’s the Stockholmers’ name for the Aaland Islands, an exquisite necklace of 6,654 small, rocky, often forested islands that more or less connects Finland with Sweden across the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia. Although I understand from a Finnish friend that great care’s being taken to keep the area from becoming too commercialized, back in Alfvén’s day the archipelago was truly wild and free — sparsely inhabited, teeming with wildlife, and a paradise for anyone seeking solitude. It was on one of those islets, from November, 1918 to March, 1919, that Alfvén composed his fourth symphony, a period he likened to “an endless happy dream.”

And so, too, the music – although like all poetic love stories, the one alluded to in this lush, surging score, has its melancholy moments and ends with the inevitable sadness of parting, the Fourth could hardly be described as “gloomy”. There is, to be sure, one storm-at-sea episode, but for the most part Alfvén paints a tone-portrait of his beloved islands as they look under a blue-vaulted Baltic sky during the brief intense summer.

Alfvén cast the 48-minute work in a single flowing movement, clearly divided into four “episodes”. The first part, a nocturne, he described as being a portrait in sound of a young man’s “burning, agonizing desire” for…well, a young woman, whose reciprocal emotions are, by contrast, “gentle and dreamy” [since Alfvén admitted that his inspiration was autobiographical, his choice of adjectives alone tells us there must be one hell of a subtext underneath this rather pleasant music!]; the third episode – naturally — boy gets together with girl and, again quoting Alfvén, “the highest bliss of love is revealed to them”. Of course, it’s all downhill after that, for the fourth and last episode trails off into brooding sadness.

To my ears at least, the Fourth has many beauties and one serious weakness – it lacks a single memorable and unifying melody that Alfvén could perorate grandly upon (major or minor), even though there are a dozen places in the symphony when it sounds like he’s working up to a killer of a theme, it never quite emerges. This is not to say that the extant themes are without interest, or that he doesn’t work them skillfully – I just keep expecting a big, fat, purple, tumescent Tchaikovskian TUNE to pull this sprawling piece together, and I always get the feeling that Alfvén kept hoping one would occur to him. But never mind: it’s still a big-hearted, emotionally generous, and frequently gorgeous Late Romantic wallow.

This is the first of Naxos’ new Alfvén-by-the-Icelanders-and-others cycle I’ve managed to hear and I was generally more than pleased with the care, affection, and sense of detail shown by Maestro Willén. Certainly, at their modest retail price, these Naxos versions should win many new friends for Alfvén’s music. I have not heard the new BIS recording, but it’ll have to be the bee’s-knees to be worth the price differential. I’m less happy with the vocalists than with the orchestra – either their mike placement was slightly off or they were both recovering from sore throats or something, but too often they produced a chill, rather glassy tone, when rapture is what this music needs; of the two, I was decidedly less pleased by Mr. Valdimarsson, who sometimes sounds more like a man in pain than a man in love.

If you’re a newcomer to Alfvén’s symphonies, however, and you’ve taken the plunge via Naxos and you like what you hear, do seek out at least one of the two classic Swedish recordings. There is a wonderfully idiomatic but slightly faded-sounding version led by Nils Grevillius (who knew the composer well) on Swedish Society Discofil made in 1962 (SLT33186) only on LP. His orchestra was the Stockholm Philharmonic and the soloists were Gunilla ap Malmborg and Sven Vikstrom. Then again there is the rapt, trance-like interpretation given by the redoubtable Stig Westerberg and the Stockholm Philharmonic on a Bluebell label CD – Elisabeth Söderström’s incomparable realization of the female vocalise would melt a glacier.

The “filler” piece on this disc, the 1944 Festival Overture, is a generic piece for a generic occasion unfortunately the program notes don’t tell us what that occasion was, but the Swedes have a big thing about commissioning one composer or another to write a pomp-filled crowd-pleaser every time the Mayor of Stockholm has a ribbon-cutting ceremony – this one might well have been for the Grand Opening of Municipal Waste Treatment Plant No. Six, or, from the sound of it, it could just as well be subtitled “Entrance of the Nobel Prize Committee for the Prime Minister’s Bi-Weekly Poker Game and Beer-Bust”.

I thought it was a gas – Alfvén must have picked up a hefty fee for this pot-boiler, because it sounds like he had fun writing it. Imagine the Academic Festival Overture as it might have sounded if Brahms was chugging a case of Carlsberg every afternoon for the week or so it took to compose the piece: a good-natured mixture of bombast and boozy conviviality, with several high-stepping folk-tunes thrown into a blender and orchestrated with lots of flare and cleverness. It definitely “sounds Swedish”, if you know what I mean, but it’s so much fun that any audience, anywhere, would find it hard to resist. Willén and his players turn in a rollicking performance and I would guess it’s safe to say that they beat the competition hands-down…if there is any. At any rate, ten minutes of boisterous crowd-pleasing musical fun makes a nice chaser after the High Seriousness of the symphony.

William R. Trotter

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