About this Recording
8.557284 - ALFVEN: Symphony No. 4, Op. 39 / Festival Overture, Op. 52
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Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)
Symphony No. 4, ‘From the Outermost Skerries’ • Festival Overture

Although the music of Hugo Alfvén has never been widely heard internationally, in his native Sweden he ranks, alongside Wilhelm Stenhammar, as the most significant composer after Berwald. Born in Stockholm on 1st May 1872, he studied at the conservatory there, followed by two years spent as a violinist in the opera orchestra, after which he decided to devote himself to composition. Unlike his predecessors, he was ambitious: two substantial symphonies [Naxos 8.553962 and 8.555072] appeared in 1897 and 1898 respectively, the Stockholm première of the latter in 1900 confirming his national reputation.

Over the following quarter century, a number of major works appeared: they include the Third [Naxos 8.553729] and Fourth Symphonies, the oratorio The Lord’s Prayer, the Revelation Cantata, the balletpantomime The Mountain King, and three Swedish Rhapsodies, of which the first, Midsummer Vigil [Naxos 8.553115] has remained his most popular piece. After 1923 his output focused increasingly 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 traditional and folk-music. Alfvén died, quite the elder statesman of Swedish music, in Falun on 8th May 1960.

A gifted watercolourist and vividly illustrative author, Alfvén was well equipped by ability as well as temperament to depict the unique island landscape of the Stockholm archipelago, in the vicinity of which he spent much of his formative years. The 1904 tone poem A Legend of the Skerries [Naxos 8.553729] evokes a soundworld far removed from the drama of his first two symphonies, and it was hardly surprising when, four years later, he decided to give his experiences of the archipelago symphonic expression. Work on the Fourth Symphony progressed fitfully and it was not until 1918, following several sailing expeditions and the taking of a sabbatical from his post as Director of Music at Uppsala University, that he was able to proceed apace. The work was completed by the spring of 1919 and received its première at a gala concert at the Stockholm Musical Academy on 4th November that year, followed by a public airing on 23rd January 1920. Despite reservations expressed by several prominent critics, general acclaim was forthcoming both then and at subsequent performances in Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna and Berlin.

One of the main reservations concerned the use of two voices, soprano and tenor, as part of the orchestral apparatus, though Alfvén was doubtless aware of a precedent in Nielsen’s Third Symphony of 1911 [Naxos 8.550825] in this respect. The other criticism concerned the erotic nature of its programme, one which Alfvén refuted to the extent of dedicating the work to his then teenage daughter Margita. He nevertheless stated that “My symphony tells the tale of two young souls. The action takes place in the skerries, where sea rages among the rocks on gloomy, stormy nights, by moonlight and in sunshine … the moods of nature are no less than symbols for the human heart”. Playing continuously, the work falls into four sections, a first movement with slow introduction, depicting desire on the part of a young man, an intermezzo-like scherzo, evoking the musing of a young girl, a slow movement depicting the happiness of love, and a finale whose storm-swept mood is an analogy for the demise of that happiness and in which the solo voices are notable by their absence.

The mysterious opening sets the scene, rippling piano figuration and deft percussion building to a brief climax before dissolving into the sound of solo violin against softly held upper strings. Its theme migrates to lower strings, gaining in emotional intensity with music of Straussian opulence. Ardour subsides as the tenor enters for the first time, intoning an expressive melody. A faster tempo sees the brief first climax recalled, followed by a resumption of the tenor vocalise. Descending woodwind arabesques presage the scherzo section, featuring darting figures on solo wind, after which, underpinned by the piano, the soprano makes a wistful first appearance. The darting music resumes in more elaborate scoring, at length vanishing into the ether. The ‘slow movement’ now begins searchingly in lower strings, moving to an affirmative climax, before subsiding into gentle rhapsody. The lush scoring embodies elements of tenor and soprano vocalise, both voices re-entering, intertwined, to enhance the mood of ecstatic fulfilment. A more capricious quality brings about the movement’s culmination, shot through with a fatalistic certainty that is held at bay while the solo voices recede beyond earshot. The music darkens appreciably, a brief but baleful outburst on brass ushering in the final section in a mood of storm and stress. Woodwind add their malevolent touch; then, after magical textures for piano, harp and strings, the solo cor anglais intones a melody that suggests resignation in the face of the inevitable. Ideas heard earlier are recalled, gathering momentum for a final, tragic climax that alludes to the beginning of the section and, in turn, to that of the whole work. It remains for the closing bars to return the music to the watery depths out of which it arose.

A very different side to the composer is to be heard in the Festival Overture of 1944, first heard that year in Stockholm. This is Alfvén the respected public figure, writing music in a direct, uncomplicated idiom for the widest possible audience. The piece opens with a vaunting theme on strings and brass, woodwind calming the mood before a lively, dance-like idea is introduced by solo bassoon. Taken up by the remainder of the orchestra, it is presently combined with the opening music, and a brief but lively development of both ideas ensues. The calmer music returns, bringing about a full reprise of the opening section: this time, however, the dance theme leads into a roof-raising coda, seeing the overture through to a triumphal close.

Richard Whitehouse

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