The long-lived Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) was something of a polymath: an expert watercolourist, a fine writer (there are four volumes of a memoir) and a violinist in the Royal Court Orchestra in Stockholm. Alfvén was only 27 when the Court Orchestra premiered his Second Symphony, conducted by fellow composer Wilhem Stenhammar. This was the first of his symphonies to appear in print, and was phenomenally successful, with a host of international performances.
Alfvén's fluidity of melodic invention and the sense of flow of his music is immediately obvious in the first moveent of his Second Symphony, heard here in a terrific, powerful performance from the Deutsches Simfonie-Orchester Berlin under Łukasz Borowicz. The pastoral elements of the first movement are honoured, too (delightful, dancing woodwind); all held within an approachable, Romantic harmonic spectrum. Borowicz understands Alfvén’s structural processes, too. Alfvén was very inspired by Nature and sea journeys; the music speaks of storms and glimpses of light:
Borowicz and his forces capture the dark, almost “Weber-Freischütz” clouded atmosphere of the second movement (an Andante) perfectly. There is a real depth here, and the arrival of a shaft of light around six minutes in brings in magic, counteracted by a resolute, rigorous in an almost Bachian sense, section. The repeated climactic chords, Alfvén’s equivalent peraps to the hammer blows of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, are incredibly powerful. Borowicz really nails the contrasts that lay at the heart of this movement:
The almost demonic Scherzo is given a fabulous performance; the end of the Scherzo offers a brilliantly dramatic stroke followed by a graceful dance of a Trio. Worth noting that the shadow of Berlioz hangs over this movement in partcular.
The two parts of the extended finale are seperately tracked: a seven-minute Prelude and a ten-minute Fuga. This really does take us into unknown regions. Composed in 1887 during Alfvén’s studies in Berlin, this final part of the symphony is effectively a tone-poem. Listen to the beautiful string counterpoint of the Preludio:
The composer describes how he felt writing this, filling in the programme of the music at the same time:
I felt somewhat like a torero who receives the sacrament before going into the arena and encountering the bull. The prelude is a serious, religiously colored meditation under the vault of the temple; it gives me the strength to go out to meet the wild bull of life with which I must engage in battle.
No missing the rigour of the Fuga. Listen to the sheer expertise of the orchestra in this tricky music:
The composer describes this, and also his use of a hymn tune later in the movement:
So I returned to Sweden in June, and I worked it out and finished it [the last movement] in the Stockholm skerries. Then during a sleepless night I suddenly heard the hymn ‘Jag går mot döden vart jag går’ [Wherever I go, I go into death] thundering in my ears in the trumpet blast of the Last Judgment. [This hymn is found as No. 619 in the Swedish Hymnbook with the text by Hans Adolph Bror son (1734) and a German melody of uncertain origin but known in Sweden since the early eighteenth century.] It was precisely this for which I had yearned without knowing it. I sensed more and more clearly that a shock ing impact of the kind that a normal double fugue can not attain was necessary, and now I had found it. The majesty of death rises between those engaged in com bat, who thereupon lay down their weapons. But soon the battle begins again, now with death as a constant companion
There certainly is no missing the chorale, heard brilliantly scored on wind and brass and delivered with a real sense of integrity here (about four minutes in). contrasts. too, are well drawn by Borowicz and his forces.
The sound of the cpo recording is fabulous, both on compact disc and via Apple Music lossless (auditioned via the new Apple Classical app).
When it comes to the Naxos performance of this symphony, it is rather inferior to the cpo in recording terms and also in execution (National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under Niklas Willén; auditioned from the 7-disc boxed set of Alfvén complete Symphonies, 8.507015). The Willén has a rather nice coupling, though: the Suite from the ballet Den förlorade sonen (The Prodigal Son), a ballet dating from much later (1957). Just listen to the folksy unison violins in the finale (“Polska”). Here’s the full suite. and the final Polka starts from around 2"49 before the end:
... and Neeme Järvi is always a reliable guide to the music he conducts. He recorded Alfvén’s Second an early BIS disc (the disc number is 385!); the actual recording is not as well-judged as the cpo though. Here is Järvi’s account, complete, though, as a rather nice bonus to this post!:
The cpo disc offers a real shift in expression in the next piece, Alfvén’s Op. 47 Swedish Rhapsody (the Dalarapsodi; Dalecarlian Rhapsody); happily, Järvi also offers one of them (the first, Midsommarvaka). Here they are, next to each other (you'll see why in a moment):
Here are Alfvén’s own comments and programme for Dalarapsodi, along with a final paragraph in which he compares and contrasts the two works above:
When once I was contemplating Lake Orsa from the heights by Oljonsbyn and the indescribably beautiful mountain formations on the other side, I felt the ardent desire to capture this melancholy natural landscape in tones. A new rhapsody began to sound in my ears. It was to be formed on the basis of the folk music of the communi ties to the north of Lake Siljan—but above all on melo dies from Orsa, where I had discovered some tunes that seemed to me to be particularly ancient. The rhapsody would assume a thoroughly pictorial character:
I see a cowherdess who is sitting alone up there in the mountain shelter. She melancholily yearns for the lowlands, where she has her dearest. She takes her cat tle horn and plays a melody to pass the time—but, alas, how melancholy it is, that melody! She listens... and far away in the distance hears... a wedding march. It comes closer but soon fades away. She bursts into stormy tears, gradually calms down, and sinks into dream visions. First she hears how the water sprite sports in the stream rapids by the little watermill. Then she dances with her dearest in the dance hall. Then she sits with the mem bers of the congregation in the church and sings the old psalm about green pastures—the most beautiful psalm that she knows. The old women weep, and the old men sigh under the weight of their sins. This melody is able to open up abysses in the human soul! But what is that?... Again she is in the dance hall in the company of mirth ful boys and girls. Then the door suddenly opens, and a strange-looking man comes in. He has a goatee and scrapes the ground with one of his feet. He snatches the violin from the fiddler and bows out a polka such as people have never heard before. The music becomes wilder and wilder. The girls’ eyes glow, and the boys raise their fists toward the ceiling and bellow as if drunk on brandy. Now sparks fly from the bow, and the young people romp around like mad... Then the cowherdess jumps up with a scream of horror, presses her hand to her heart, awakes from the horrible dream, and looks confusedly around. She is again in the lonely mountain shelter. She calmly takes up her horn again, and I hear the same melody that she had played at the beginning. And the woods answer with a deep and melancholy sigh.”
This rhapsody stands in the sharpest contrast to the Midsommarvaka—it is just as gloomy and filled with grief as the other one is bright and filled with humor. The two depictions of the soul of the Swedish folk com plement each other. They belong together like two con trasting parts of a book that treats a single theme but illu mines it from various sides. The elegiac melodies of theDalarapsodi are the noblest, most beautiful, and most gripping music that I have found in the soul of the Swedish folkmelodies sentenced to death that I have tried to rescue from everlasting oblivion
There is no missing the serious qualities of the Dalarapsodi’s opening Andante (this is an extended work: the Andante alone lasts nearly 17 minutes); there is poignancy here, particularly in the opening woodwind solo - a soprano saxophone! - along with a pronouced rusticity later on. There is almost the sense of a Smetana Furiant to the second movement Allegro violento; interestingly, this disc offers the alternative ending for this work (both are quoted above).
A fabulous disc, beuaitfully recorded and just as beautifully played. Borowicz has a true, natural feel for Alfvén’s music.
The link for the BIS recording is below but only one copy is available, at £47.48! And if you can find it (it doesn't appear to be currently available) there is a recording by Evgeny Svetlanov with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra ...