ALFVEN Orchestral Works Vol.1. Royal Scottish NO/Willen (Naxos) – INKPOT
Hugo ALFVN (1872-1960)
|All this music is new to me: but this disc had such an immediate effect on me that I just had to review it immediately – if you’re into turn-of-the-century music from Scandinavia, do give it a try!
The Festpel – Festival Overture – begins with a series of brassy fanfares that, although it does not quite reach Star Wars, is immediately arresting. A festively loud theme swaggers in with great pomp and royal joy, with cymbals, drums and ringing triangle in accompaniment. After a lyrical central trio, still brimming with sunny warmth, this “march” section returns to close the overture in triumph. Composed in one day for the opening of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, 1908, the Festspel has enjoyed a long history of use during Swedish state occasions. After listening to its open-hearted celebration, one hardly wonders why! The Royal Scottish National bring in their thunder and blazes to bear on the work – and they obviously enjoyed it!
Hugo Emil Alfvn (left), contemporary to Sibelius, is one of the Swedes’ most 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.
Alfvn’s orchestral palette has been compared to that of Richard Strauss. Listening to the music for the ballet-pantomime Bergakungen (The Mountain King, 1917-22), one certainly agrees. The atmosphere of the four pieces here also bring to mind Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Above an insistent timpani footstep, the ominous first movement Besvrjelse (Invocation) conjures a picture of dark magic, flitting shadows and fearful journeys through some goblin forest. The ballet is based on Den Bergtagna, about a shepherdess abducted by the mountain king but later rescued by her beloved. Unforunately they die in a snowstorm.
Alfvn was also inspired by the paintings of John Bauer, whose children’s story book Bland tomtar och troll (Among goblins and trolls) remains highly influential in the tradition of illustrations for children’s literature on the themes of sylvan and troll culture.
The second movement in the suite is the slow and serene Trollflickans dans (Dance of the Troll Maiden). The Royal Scottish National produce a sweet and evocative reading, from the dreamy introduction to the perfumed dance on violins. A short dramatic outburst towards the end makes for some contrast. The sweet tonal writing, the scoring which includes the “tinkling” instruments (harp, xylo) immediately reveals itself as one of the sources to which many composers for cartoon/animation epics must have refered.
The evocatively titled Sommarregn (Summer rain) has a ring of Holst’s The Planets in its colour. The 2-minute piece shimmers with strings and triangle; while the woodwind gurgle with the rain, a saxophone (I think it’s a sax) sings a forlorn theme over the glissandi of low harp strings. Wow, I would love to see the ballet.
The fiddle dance (as in those of the “Wild West”!) of Vallflickans dans (Dance of the Shepherd Girl) has evidently endeared it among the Swedish. I can hardly contain myself as I imagine the Royal *Scottish* fiddlers putting their heart and soul into this music! Writer of the CD notes, Sven Kruckenberg, calls it “an indispensible encore for Swedish orchestras on concert tours abroad.” Anyway, the music has the capacity for wide appeal, with a cosmopolitan tone always showing the composer’s rich resources.
One of Alfvn’s most famous works is the trio of Swedish Rhapsodies. Of these, the second “Uppsala Rhapsody” is the least known. Composed in 1907 for the Uppsala University on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Linnus, it is based on student songs and popular melodies of the day l Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. The work is comparatively simple and direct; accessible, but personally I find of limited interest. The composer does indulge in a little humour though, by depicting the swallowing of booze with clarinet gurglings!
Alfvn’s 35-minute Symphony No.1 in F minor is one of his earliest works (the earliest in this collection), but is quite a unique creation. Written in 1897, it opens with a long Grave section that sounds quite modern (in the Sibelian, tonal sense but Alfvn’s style is very different from the Finn). An ominous crescendo-ing drum roll begins the movement, (half expecting Grieg’s Piano Concerto to ring out) and then a solo cello utters an impassioned, forlorn theme punctuated by the orchestra. There is the sense of progression accompanied by an absence of a real/dominant melody – hallmarks of great composition. The bridge into the vehement Allegro con brio is handled with genius, and the progression of moods and themes, sometimes reminding me of Brahms, is impressively coherent in the hands of Swedish conductor Niklas Willn.
After the confident utterance of the previous movement, the “pretty winter” imagery of the Andante is quite sentimental. All eight minutes of this movement keep to the general atmosphere of languid, somewhat soapy, sweetness mixed in with “Romantic” feeling. The orchestral writing is very clear however, and the performance by the Royal Scottish actually kept my attention, never becoming dreary. The Allegro molto scherzando begins with a lively and confident section framing the traditional slower central trio, ending amusingly with a little wink.
The finale is marked “Allegro ma non troppo”, and sports this little march led by piccolo and fellow woodwind in the middle. It starts playfully then gathers strength. This development is quite impressive, as the theme is passed to strings then tutti winds, and festively to the trumpets then returned to the woodwind and then merging into the “main” symphonic picture proper. In the final minute of the work, the excitement builds towards a victorious coda of heroic confidence, with which the movement also began.
Alfvn’s orchestration, come to think of it, has this confident utterance and avoids being overblown – I really like the way he allows the brass and drums to showcase themselves but keeps everything carefully defined and in place. His writing for woodwind is concise and effective, with the regular moment of eyebrow-raising inspiration. There are hints of various composers (Brahms, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, American film and something modern….), but the music is original and distinguished.
I suspect that it is very possible for an uninspired orchestra to make this work sound boring, and am glad to report that the Royal Scottish National plays it with much musical conviction. I shall like to hear this played by a Swedish team, but for now, this Naxos album is a revelatory encounter for me, and I’m sure it will be for anyone interested in the music of Scandinavia, circa the time of Sibelius. Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, the sound is very truthful, capturing many details among the winds, giving due prominence to the combined brass sections and laying the heavy drums in its rightful place in the whole picture. I eagerly await Volume 2.
The INKPOT SIBELIUS NUTCASE thinks “Hugo Alfvn” is a really darn cool name. He reminisces nostalgically at the prehistoric creatory influences on his own, not-so-illustrious yet completely legume-justified title.
458: 20.4.1999. up.3.6.1999 Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase
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