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ClassicsOnline Home » ALFVEN: Symphony No. 5
A gifted musician, writer and watercolourist, Hugo Alfvén is regarded in his native Sweden as the
most significant composer after Berwald. The Fifth Symphony occupied Alfvén throughout the
1940s and 1950s, and draws on themes from his ambitious 1923 ballet The Mountain King. The
first movement has sometimes been performed on its own, but the symphony is relatively rarely
heard as a whole. The Andante religioso is Alfvén’s arrangement for harp, celesta and strings of an
intermezzo from his Revelation Cantata, Op. 31. This disc completes the Naxos cycle of the
complete Alfvén Symphonies.
By Robert Plyler
By Kenneth Page
High drama sweeps through the ranks of full orchestra right from the start of hugo Alfven’s fifth, last, symphony. It is an epic work, and no mistake, challenging the most extrovert music of Strauss and Tchaikovsky. …the beautiful little instrumental Andante religioso…represents a sustained feat of imagination on the part of Sweden’s leading romanticist, a one-time violinist who also found time to paint and write. Willén and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra turn in a marvellous performance. I suspect they thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and if your taste runs to full-bore romantic escapism, I suspect you will thoroughly enjoy it too.
By David Denton
Born in Stockholm in 1872, it was as a choral conductor that Hugo Alfven first
came to public attention, the Orphei Drangar, a society without any previous
claim to fame becoming one of Europe's most outstanding ensembles under his
direction. As a young man he had studied painting, and his compositions were
to capture the mood of colours, the Shepherd-girl's Dance� - part of
a ballet, The Mountain King - becoming so popular it is almost replaced
the Swedish National Anthem. Yet it was through his symphonies that he hoped
to establish himself as an important musical figure of the 20th century. It
was to prove difficult, for by the time they appeared, during the first half
of this century, his style of writing was looked upon as old fashioned and no
longer in vogue. Two decades separated the fourth and fifth symphonies, and
he was almost seventy when he began work on this last major work. For the first
movement he drew on material from The Mountain King, but having completed
this he found considerable difficulty with the remaining three movements, the
final score taking sixteen years to complete. Sadly after its first performance
it has seldom been heard. Now at last we have a recorded performance that does
the work justice, the Norrkoping orchestra playing with that passion as if this
was the greatest symphony ever written. Certainly the dramatic opening movement
is the work's strong point, though I find the Andante a gorgeous moment; the
quirky third is full of unexpected changing moods, while the lengthy finale
looks too far back in style, but makes a spirited conclusion. The short Andante
religioso dates from 1913 and forms an intermezzo from his Revelation Cantata.
The whole disc is superbly played, ideally recorded and a 'top of the shopping
list' release for lovers of Scandinavian music. Fervently recommended.
Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)
Symphony No. 5 • Andante religioso
Although the music of Hugo Alfvén has never been widely heard internationally, in his native Sweden he ranks, by the side of his slightly older contemporary Wilhelm Stenhammar, as the most significant composer to have emerged after Berwald. Born in Stockholm on 1 May 1872, he studied at the Conservatory there, and then, after two years as a violinist in the opera orchestra, devoted himself to composing. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he was ambitious: two substantial symphonies, Nos. 1 in F minor and No. 2 in D major [Naxos 8.553962 and 8.555072] appeared in 1897 and 1898, with the Stockholm première of the latter in 1900 confirming his national reputation.
Over the following quarter century, a number of major works appeared: these include the Third Symphony [Naxos 8.553729] and Fourth Symphony [Naxos 8.557284], the oratorio The Lord's Prayer, Revelation Cantata, the ballet-pantomime The Mountain King, and three Swedish Rhapsodies, of which the first, Midsummer Vigil [Naxos 8.553115] remains his most popular piece. After 1923 his output focused on choral music, reflecting his commitments as conductor of the Siljan Choir and Orpheus Singers, with whom he toured frequently. His Fifth Symphony occupied him throughout the 1940s and 1950s, while the ballet The Prodigal Son found the 85-year-old composer making inventive use of folk-music. Alfvén died, the elder statesman of Swedish music, in Falun on 8 May 1960.
In its outward appearance, the Fifth Symphony looks right back to the two works with which the composer had established his reputation in the late 1890s. Alfvén began it in 1942, two decades after the completion of his previous symphony, in the process recycling music used in his ambitious ballet The Mountain King (1923), and managed to complete the first movement in time for its performance at a concert marking his seventieth birthday. Thereafter he struggled considerably with the symphony, which finally received a complete performance on 14 April 1953, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra being conducted by Carl von Garaguly. Although the equivocal reception was largely on account of its backward-looking nature, it confirmed to Alfvén that the piece was not yet finalised and he further revised it until 1958. Even then he admitted that the latter two movements had not worked out as intended, and the symphony has received relatively few complete performances in the 45 years since his death.
Performed independently, as it has been on several occasions, as First Movement, the opening Allegro is a substantial and coherent entity in itself. The Lento introduction brings with it a mood of rapidly intensifying anticipation, before the main portion of the movement is ushered in with a lithe theme which quickly makes way for its successor, a gentler, rhapsodic utterance. Interestingly, the whole of the movement so far, slow introduction as well as the exposition, is now repeated, this time leading into a strenuous development which is centred on the energetic theme. There follows a reprise where both main themes are heard, albeit in reverse order and with subtly altered orchestration, then an extensive coda, in effect a second development, which reworks the introduction and appears to be bringing the movement full circle, were it not, that is, for the lack of a clinching cadence in the abrupt final gesture.
The remainder of the symphony attempts, in the composer's view, not wholly convincingly, to achieve a sense of formal and expressive closure. The Andante is among Alfvén's most elegantly-realised symphonic movements, emerging from its dreamy opening to take in a more animated central section, begun by caroling woodwind, that reaches a surging climax before returning to its initial serenity. What follows is a spectral intermezzo, with prominent xylophone and sardonic gestures from brass, which takes on the aura of a 'danse macabre' as it progresses. A central section is more suave in manner, though still with an underlying malevolence, and leads naturally into a resumption of the music heard earlier. It remains for the extensive finale to wrap up the whole structure. Opening with an imperious idea, the movement soon heads into another of Alfvén's generously evocative themes, before a transition back to the opening idea and a full exposition repeat. There follows a resourceful development of both themes, and then, after a moment of anticipation, the movement heads into a modified reprise. Beginning with the second theme, the coda brings back the imperious opening idea to triumphal effect, underlined by three powerful final chords.
From much earlier in Alfvén's career comes the Andante religioso, an intermezzo drawn from the Revelation Cantata (Op. 31) written during spring 1913 for the consecration of a church in Saltsjöbaden. Although the original item sets a text beginning 'Comfort my people', the present arrangement for harp, celesta and strings fully captures the music's meditative solemnity, as well as evoking the sense of spacious vistas within its relatively brief duration.
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ALFVEN: Symphony No. 5