ALFVEN Orchestral Works Vol.2. Royal Scottish NO/Willen (Naxos) – INKPOT

Hugo ALFVN (1872-1960)

Orchestral Works Vol.2 | Vol.1 Dalarapsodi, op.47 (Dalecarlian Rhapsody)
Swedish Rhapsody No.3
En skrgrdssgen, op.20 (Legend of the Skerries)
Symphony No.3 in E major, op.23

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
conducted by Niklas Willn

NAXOS 8.553729
[78:46] budget-price

by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase™
Hot on the heels, as they say, of Vol.1 comes Vol.2 of Naxos’ survey of Alfvn’s orchestral music. And my, it comes really packed full at 79 minutes! Nevertheless, 79 minutes of wonderfully accessible music it is: Alfvn’s music constantly brims with life, as in this E major Third Symphony, opening with a Brahmsian Allegro con brio – how unsurprising that it was composed while the composer was in Italy.

Hugo Emil Alfvn, contemporary to Sibelius, is one of the Swedes’ favourite composers. A violinist by training and also a fine painter, he studied conducting in Dresden and later became Director of Music at the Uppsala University from 1910-1923. With the Orphei Drnger (Servants of Orpheus) choir he toured throughout Europe and the USA, developing their and his international fame. To date, Alfvn’s place in the Swedish choral tradition remains very strong, both in terms of compositions and arrangements. With five symphonies and various tone poems to his credits, Alfvn is considered as something of a Father of Swedish Orchestral Music, which was a genre whose potential he opened up for his fellow Swedes.

“The symphony has no programme,” said Alfvn, “it depicts neither concrete nor abstract. It is an expression of the joy of living, an expression of the sun-lit happiness that filled my whole being.” The notes by Sven Kruckenberg (trans. Kerstin Swartling) don’t say much more about the music, which I guess fits in with Alfvn’s description. Nevertheless, let’s see…

Certainly the countryside atmosphere, festive in the opening, pastoral in the Andante, is there. Warmth and lyricism characterises this music: Brahms and Dvorak (the fast, punchy, brassy passages) come to mind. In addition, there is I think more than a few Wagnerian gestures, including a very distinctive recurring horn call in the lovingly sentimental Andante. The latter stretches its 10-minutes through the atmosphere of a love song – not surprising again because at that time Hugo was with Marie Kryer, his wife. Imagine! In Italy! The music builds to a passionate climax before slipping away dreamily. The pictorial quality, despite Alfvn’s assertion, adds greatly to the symphony’s accessibility. Credit to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for keeping the sentimentalism in check, and the conductor for sculpting a dramatic yet overall very refined performance. I guess all this tells you something of the Romantic-Late-Romantic quality of the music.

The spritely Presto is a fine example of Alfvn’s “rhapsodic” sunny writing. In particular, I greatly enjoy his ability to run the twirling lines from section to section, wind to string to wind. The transparent and expert playing of the RNSO brings the music brightly to life. They step up the gears in the finale, another Allegro con brio. Beginning with a moto perpetuo string theme with more than a hint of humour, contrasting with a serene pastoral theme, which builds back towards a rolling brass theme. All the material then repeats – the music will probably cause a few frowns with its rather naive, un-serious tone, but it’s lively and enjoyable all the same unless you are looking for something much more “modern”.

The Dalecarlian Rhapsody begins with a long passage featuring a lusciously floating wind melody. This is a work from 1931, greatly resembling Dvorak’s fairy tale tone poems; it is full of sadness and nostalgia, depicting a shepherd girl in longing. Her memories of merriment in the village arouses cheerful dance music from the orchestra, and it is here where Alfvn’s unpretentious sunniness comes forth again, next to woodwind amusements – all earnestly delivered by the Scottish orchestra. A harmonically “exotic” passage depicts the Devil (Middle Eastern, according to the tone) causing havok in the village with his frenzied tunes.

Hugo Alfvn Willn’s conducting is honest and hard to fault – he gets a nice degree of dramatism from the orchestra, just the right amount of push; shifts from fast/loud sections to slow/hushed sections are effected very naturally. Listen for that serene horn call before the sorrowful theme returns on string/brass in the middle of the work, now transformed into a solemn hymn, and at last back to the quietude of the beginning.

This is “Romantic” music from 1931, so don’t expect anything revolutionary or particularly special; the performance, nevertheless, makes a good case for its simple melodic appeal. The heart of a sincere composer, who has no need to follow trends, comes through without even one asking.

The Dalecarlian Rhapsody seems more tone poem than “rhapsody” – and the Legend of the Skerries is definitely tone poem. Here, Alfvn wanted to depict “the skerries in the darkness of autumn night, the storms and the elegaic moonlight” – the skerries being the winds. This 1904 composition is actually more “modern”-sounding than the Dalecarlian Rhapsody. After the opening nocturne, the skerries slowly gain momentum as they surf and swirl in the air – you can hear a bit of the seas as well as the strings soar with their melody with silvery flutes fluttering above. Not surprisingly, though not uneffectively, a full-blown Romantic melody makes its way to the top of the strings, soaring and surging with yearning passion.

Another Naxos journey of exploration worth any lover-of-orchestral-music’s investment. If you can or wish to only buy one, go for Vol.1. Now, for Volume 3… .

In Singapore, Naxos records can be easily ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City).

The INKPOT SIBELIUS NUTCASE‘s default Ikea meal is Swedish Meatballs. The apple pie is pretty good too.

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576: 20.9.1999. Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

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