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Gramophone, October 2007

These all make a better case for the composer than his flawed and bloated Fifth Symphony (1941-58), which Naxos has also just released from the same forces. The Symphony's first version (1942) comprised just the first movement: he should have let it go at that. Excellend sound for both discs.

Kenneth Page
Limelight, July 2007

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.

Robert Plyler
The Post-Journal, May 2007

Resisting the abstraction and atonal trends of the mid-20th century, Alfven has created truly beautiful music, yet music with substance and intellectual worth, rather than blandly pleasing elevator music.

The symphony draws heavily on themes from the composer’s 1923 ballet, “The Mountain King,” and uses instruments such as harp and celesta for variety and musical emphasis.

The first movement is not uncommonly programmed around the world, but the whole work is rarely performed. This recording completes Naxos’ cycle of the complete Alfven symphonies.

Purchase the recording at music stores or by computer at, using catalog number 8.557612. It has a playing time of 57 minutes and 47 seconds.

Patrick C Waller
MusicWeb International, April 2007

"Naxos is a company which seems to take a long view and it has embarked on many worthwhile series. This one started with recordings made in 1996 and now concludes with Alfvén’s final symphony, a work which occupied him for a comparable amount time before it was first performed in 1953. He continued to revise it for several years afterwards and was never fully satisfied with the third and fourth movements. Tim Perry has already reviewed this disc (see review) and found the result “phenomenal”, making it a bargain of the month in March. This is only the second recording of the work – Neeme Järvi’s 1992 rendition with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra being the competition."

"I share Tim Perry’s view that the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and Niklas Willén meet these challenges very successfully. What is more, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a more convincing reading than Järvi’s. The difference between the two versions largely lies in atmosphere and Willén’s version captures this more successfully and holds the attention more consistently – particularly in the big spans of the outer movements. In the slow movement there is a bittersweet feeling here which Järvi only hints at. This is a version that might just rehabilitate the piece and set it alongside the fourth as the pinnacle of his work rather than some fumblings of old age."

Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, March 2007

This disc brings the Naxos cycle of Alfvén's symphonies to a rousing conclusion. Each of the other discs in the series (see also reviews of Symphony No.2, Symphony No.3 and Symphony No.4) has featured an orchestra from somewhere outside the composer's native Sweden, but for this final instalment conductor Niklas Willén has returned to Sweden, and with phenomenal results. I had never previously heard of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, but they are in incredible form here. They clearly believe in Alfvén, and under Willén's direction turn in ravishing performances of this lush late romantic music.

Alfvén started work on his fifth and final symphony in 1942 at the age of 70 and did not complete it in its final form until 1958. Much of the music is drawn from Alfvén's 1923 ballet, The Mountain King, but it is heavily reworked and redeveloped in the symphony.

The opening of the first movement is amazingly impressive. It is as if the composer has stirred the harmonic languages of Franck, Rachmaninov, the young Sibelius and Wagner in a huge cauldron and, when the brew reached a boiling point of passionate chromaticism, heaved the pot over, spilling the mix all over the icy Swedish landscape to solidify into his own language. The first five minutes generate heat, menace and real excitement. Harmonies are adventurous and, my goodness, does Alfvén know his way around the orchestra! He draws dark sounds from his lower woodwinds, plangent sighs from the upper ones and sweeping ardour from the strings. Alfvén's problem, though, is that once he has poured out these fascinating ideas, he struggles to develop them further. The first movement falls away from its impressive heights after the first five or so minutes, with much of the movement's remaining 15 minutes consisting of repetition of the slow introduction and exposition and an unconvincing “sound and fury” development that leads back to restatement of that fantastic opening music. We know where we have come from, but do not seem to get anywhere. The coda, though, is stunningly written and brilliantly played, with high strings purring away above a stentorian brass chorale. Putting aside questions of form, though, as pure sound this is exciting stuff.

Given its length and its self-contained nature, it is unsurprising that the first movement is more often performed alone as a sort of tone poem, rather than with its following movements. This is a shame, though, because these movements contain some strikingly attractive music. The second – an andante – opens with low rumblings (tuba and bass clarinet in unison?), which lead into a gorgeous melody of longing. Alfvén's harmonies, again, are utterly beguiling. The third movement again opens with those low rumblings, before the xylophone takes up at a grim bone rattling theme a la Saint-Saëns, which is quickly put down by an emphatic swirling of the strings. This is a movement of constant mood shifts, and in its nightmare-world ambiguity it recalled to my mind the scherzo of Mahler's seventh symphony, though in truth it sounds nothing like it. The final movement is the weakest of the four. Alfvén plays his hand too early, stating his joyous final cadence immediately and leaving himself nowhere to go. So he abandons it, returning to it periodically throughout the movement. In the interim he crafts and develops a gorgeous, lyrical theme that could have been penned by Grieg. There are splashes of Nielsen in this movement, particularly in the brass writing towards the end. Again, this is wonderful musical substance, imperfect in form but fantastically orchestrated and played.

After the symphony, Naxos offers a short filler in the form of Alfvén's Andante religioso, a movement adapted for harp, celesta and strings from his Revelation Cantata of 1913. It is a simply gorgeous piece of melodic writing, and should take its place alongside those other beautiful Nordic pieces for strings, from Grieg’s Holberg Suite to Wirén's Serenade for Strings and beyond.

The catalogue hardly runneth over with recordings of Alfvén's symphonies, but this disc, and indeed Naxos' cycle, faces competition from Neeme Järvi on BIS. I have not heard any of the BIS performances, but the quality of the conducting and orchestral playing on this Naxos disc would be next to impossible to surpass. Still, I should note that those curious about the origins of this symphony may want BIS's coupling of the suite from The Mountain King. Even if that is the case, though, I would recommend purchasing this Naxos disc anyway. You hardly ever hear anything played this well and the sonics are demonstration class.

Lovers of the romantic symphony should invest in this disc without delay. Whatever the faults of this music, its freshness, Alfvén's flashes of original genius and the stunning playing of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra offer more than ample compensation.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, March 2007

The complete four movement version of Hugo Alfven's (1872-1960) fifth symphony (1942-1953) is what we have here, but the first movement was composed ten years before the other three, and there's the rub. That's because it's probably the best symphonic movement he ever wrote, while the later ones, although they're very good, just aren’t as inspired. The work opens with considerable angst and some Mephistophelian sounding measures that gradually brighten harmonically in a passage right out of Cesar Franck (track-1, between 02:53 and 04:16). The motifs just heard are developed in spectacular fashion and the movement closes triumphantly, but with an unresolved final chord signifying there's more to come. The following andante has a funeral-like opening and closing, surrounding a light and cheery midsection. The next movement is totally different from anything heard so far. It's a diabolical scherzo complete with an osseous xylophone and demonic winds, and some of the whackiest music Alfven ever composed! The finale opens joyfully with a theme that might well have been written by Alexander Glazunov (track-4, beginning at 00:046). A most elegant development follows, and the symphony ends victoriously in the best tradition of a Hollywood epic. If you’re feeling adventurous, try playing this piece without the second movement. You may find going directly to the scherzo provides such a complete change of pace from the first movement that the finale comes off sounding a little more convincing. The disc is filled out with the gorgeously moving Andante religioso drawn from the composer's Revelation Cantata (Op. 31). The performances are first-rate and at Naxos prices this is obviously the complete version of the fifth to have. The sound is very good except for a couple of slightly audible "Bernstein Bounces" from Niklas Willen on the podium.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2007

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.

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