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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The two film-score suites date from the 1930s and ‘40s and are full of charm and easy melodic invention. They are unashamedly romantic—even sentimental—in nature, but each of the numbers is highly appealing. A Country Tale is the more melodramatic of the two, though that has its share of wistful, yearning melodies which make up a fair proportion of Synnove of Solbakken. Both are imbued with folk-like tunes which add bucolic piquancy. Elégie is the longest piece here; it is Alfvén’s homage to the Swedish composer Johan Gustav Emil Sjörgen. As its title indicates, it is a solemn piece but is far from unattractive, and it includes an impressive climax. Sympathetic performances and decent recording.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, November 2007

If you have any familiarity with Alfvén, you will already know that he was more a product of the 19th century than of the 20th, as were so many Scandinavian composers of the time. You will also know that his music is of a rich, romantic tonal opulence that often has much in common with Swedish contemporaries, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Wilhelm Stenhammar. If you are not familiar with Alfvén, this release is as good a place as any to whet your appetite. Performances and recording are exemplary. Highly recommended. © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

Gramophone, October 2007

In his music for the film Synnøve Solbakken (1934), Norwegian-Swedish co-production that used two partly separate casts, Hugo Alfvén used folk tunes from both nations. As in his later cinema scor from En bygdesaga("A Country Tale"), Alfvén reused material from his large ballet-pantomime Bergakungen ("The Mountain King") and the suites he later extraced from both inhabit a stylised fold landscape, albeit decked out in sometimes lush, late-Tchaikovskian colours. The Norköpping Symphony Orchestra play for Naxos with great relish under Niklas Willén – whose tempi are more leisurely than the composer's own – with the bonus of At Emil Skögren's Funeral, a movingly evocative homage to the older composer.

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, August 2007

Alfvén is not a composer one might instantly associate with films, especially as his musical career lay between the two Golden Ages of Swedish Cinema. But he wrote three major scores: the two recorded here and the later (1949) one for Singoalla, also the subject of works by Natanael Berg and Gunnar de Frumerie. Both Synnøve Solbakken and En Bygdesaga have appeared on disc before.

Synnøve of Solbakken is a sort of Village Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. It was a Swedish-Norwegian joint production and Alfvén uses Norwegian folk tunes in the score as well as excerpts from his own ballet The Mountain King. From this he fashioned a six-movement suite. Sunday Morning in the Forest appears first here but was not originally the opening of the film, yet it serves this function well. Young Love is a demure episode, appealing rather than passionate, but with sumptuous orchestration, including harps and piano. The second half has some interesting development that one would not have predicted when the piece started. The third section of the suite Poignant Grief-Pastorale is quite effective with its Norwegian fiddle sounds contrasting with material from the first two sections of the suite. Torbjörn and Synnøve continues in the vein of the second section. Langtan is the most effective movement in the suite, with a haunting violin solo. I Solbakken was the music actually played for the opening credits of the film, but it’s Norwegian dances do just as well for the end of the suite. All of the above is recorded rather closely, but in an unobtrusive way that emphasizes both the emotions of the score and the playing of the orchestra. Willén conducts in a less sentimental fashion than Alfvén sometimes receives and it is perfect for this film music. He also has an excellent sense of tempo.

More serious is the six-movement suite from the second and later film score En Bygdesaga. In spite of the seemingly-benign name this is the story of Märit, married to Påvel, but in love with Håkan. The suite concentrates on the music associated with the characters and the important emotions that propel the film’s action. The Introduction immediately and almost violently sets the emotional tone with resplendent brass chords giving way to a more gentle section, still informed by the feelings of the opening. Dreams deals with the musical ideas associated with the main characters and with certain objects that have symbolic value in the course of the film. Alfvén takes this material into increasing tense, and for him, dissonant territory, before reaching a quiet ending. Guilty love is even more violent as it uses the lower notes of the orchestra to portray the feelings of the two main characters. This music is developed into a chorale section with the upper strings playing other material. An excellent example of the composer’s orchestral and contrapuntal skill. As if the previous section were not intense enough, Jealousy shows us the feelings of Påvel - equally intense, though different in kind. This does not last long, changing into a pastoral section, but one in which the tension is not totally dissipated. The composer uses the strings to make this transition in his usual accomplished manner. After the previous sections, the Funeral March makes a good contrast and it is solemn enough, though not totally convincing. The title of the final section, Baying of Wolves, refers to the social ostracism Håkan and Märit will face as they run off together. This is true music of flight, with elements of the joy of freedom mixed in. Again, Willén and Norköpping handle every aspect of this complicated music with aplomb.

The Elégie is actually a tone poem written in memory of Emil Sjögren, the great composer of lieder. It was originally published for piano and then later orchestrated before being used in some incidental music Alfvén wrote for a play called We, finally becoming a part of the Gustav II Adolph Suite (op. 49) taken from the incidental music. Harmonically and emotionally it is one of the strongest of his shorter orchestral works. In his development of the first theme Alfvén maintains some emotional distance, as if writing for a beloved public figure, while the second theme seems more appropriate for a friend or colleague. The opening of the piece with its appropriately scored hollow chords and the magical final notes frame a truly moving experience. The string playing by the Norköpping players is wonderful throughout and Willén ably brings out the various emotional shades of the work.

The major competition on CD to this disc would be Sterling Gramofon CDS 1012, released in 1996. This contains the two film suites, but not the Elegie and was recorded by two different conductors and orchestras, one of them Norköpping. It is an estimable production but lacks both the comprehensiveness of Willén’s outlook on the music and the intimate but impressive recording quality of the Naxos disc. Given the low price and the fact that that many listeners will already have previous volumes by Willén in the Naxos Alfvén series, this disc is a must for Alfvén fans and, due to the specific qualities of the music, even those who do not otherwise warm to him.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, June 2007

Following the release of Hugo Alfven’s (1872-1960) fifth symphony (see the newsletter of 28 March 2007), the Naxos folks now give us another outstanding disc of orchestral selections by that great Swedish composer. His film music is featured here with two six-movement suites he extracted from his scores for Synnove of Solbakken (1934) and A Country Tale (1945). Both are rustic love stories and contain material that Alfven borrowed from his ballet-pantomime Bergakungen or The Mountain King (1916-23).

Synnove... is set in Norway, so consequently it’s not surprising that much of the music is based on Norwegian folk melodies, and comes off sounding more than a little like Edvard Grieg. Highpoints include a gorgeous waltz melody that signifies young love and permeates the whole piece, plus a jovial finale, which finds Alfven at his most appealing (shades of his three Swedish rhapsodies).

A Country Tale is a much more serious sounding affair that begins with angst and foreboding. The second and third movements are a lovely dream and love scene respectively featuring some delightful melodies that may well have been folk inspired. Things then turn rather solemn for the remaining three movements, which feature a musical portrait of jealousy, a funeral march and an anxiety-ridden finale with hunting calls and lupine associations (see the album notes).

The program closes with an elegy (c. 1918) that Alfven wrote in memory of another Swedish composer, Emil Sjogren, who died in 1918. In essence it’s a small tone poem lasting just over twelve minutes. A rather funereal sounding opening theme is contrasted with another of solace and consolation. The piece ends leaving the listener with a feeling of reconciliation and divine closure. The performances by the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra under Niklas Willen are excellent and the recorded sound is good, making this a highly desirable follow-on to the previous disc referred to above.

Patrick Waller
MusicWeb International, May 2007

The two suites derived from film music which Alfvén wrote during the 1930s and 1940s. They recall the pastoral mood of his much earlier and probably best-known work Midsummer Vigil. The plot of both films involves romantic liaisons set in the countryside which run into difficulties but end happily. Neither seems to have been a success at the box office but that had nothing to do with the music which was subsequently reduced into two six movement suites. These only vaguely seem to paraphrase the plots; Synnøve Solbakken generally focuses more on sex than violence whereas the reverse is true in En Bygdesaga.

Synnøve [of] Solbakken is the name of the heroine, lover of Torbjörn who gets injured in a fight with a rival. The opening Sunday Morning in the Forest is lush and punctuated by cuckoo calls. Synnøve then contemplates her love on the mountain pasture before Poignant grief intervenes but the atmosphere is hardly less pastoral. The fourth movement is called Torbjörn and Synnøve and they seem to be dancing. Yearning is followed by a return to Solbakken – the name of the village rather than a surname – where no doubt they all lived happily ever after. If my summary makes it sound perfunctory, the music is actually quite delightful and obviously Scandinavian, clearly deriving much from Grieg.

En Bygdesaga means “A Country Tale” and is rather sterner stuff. Certainly the introduction has some drama but Dreams and some moments in Guilty Love – Anguish remind us that this is set deep in the heart of the Swedish countryside. The fourth movement is called Jealousy but soon leads to a Pastorale. The fifth movement is a funeral march but the lovers have survived to escape across the fields in a finale called Baying of Wolves.

The Swedish organist and composer Emil Sjögren died in 1918 and his funeral inspired this powerful and extended elegy. The booklet tells us that this “tribute is a tone poem that often anticipates the Fourth Symphony on which he was soon to embark”. There is also an obvious direct reference to an anguished theme which eventually found its way into the much later Fifth Symphony.

This disc seems to be by way of a follow-up to the recently issued recording of Alfvén’s Fifth Symphony from the same forces in Norrköping (see review). That has already become a potential disc of the year for me – wonderfully committed playing which outshines rivals from the capital under Neeme Järvi. Here the orchestra are less taxed but there is much sensitive playing on offer. Once again they are very well recorded.

The elegy is a work of substance but the two suites are programme music based on programmes which lack just that. Nevertheless it is good that Alfvén’s music is being rescued from oblivion and it will be enjoyed by anyone who warms to the Midsummer Vigil.

Raymond Tuttle
Classical Net, April 2001

Like many classical composers from the century just past, Hugo Alfvén padded his bank account from time to time by writing music for films. Lest any readers look down on that practice, consider that, then as now, more people go to movie theaters than to concert halls, and if a composer wants his music to be heard by a lot of people, films can be a fine "delivery system." A good director will let the composer do what he thinks is best, and one hardly feels that Alfvén was constrained in his scores to Synnøve of Solbakken (1934) and A Country Tale (1945). In fact, in both cases, Alfvén's music was deemed superior to the film itself.

Synnøve, based on a novel by Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, was a joint production of Sweden and Norway. The title character is a country lass who loves Torbjörn, the scion of a rival family. In the end, after the usual trials and tribulations, the families reconcile, the two lovers are allowed to marry, and everyone lives happily ever after. Assisted by Eduard Hladisch, Alfvén prepared a six-movement suite from the film's many cues, and the result is heard here. The music is unsophisticated, in the very best sense of the word. Given the film's setting, there is the unsurprising use of Norwegian folk tunes, and indeed, Edvard Grieg seems not very far away much of the time.

En Bygdesaga (also known as Mans Kvinna, or "Man's Woman") is based on a novel by Vilhelm Moberg. Here we have a rural love triangle, with Märit married to the farmer Påvel, but in love with the younger farmer Håkan. Consumed with jealousy, Påvel locks Märit away, as if she were his property (thus the title), but she escapes, and she and Håkan run off together. Again, a six-movement suite was prepared. As befits the subject matter, the music is darker, and more reminiscent of Alfvén's symphonies than the music for Synnøve. Nevertheless, the underlying pastoral mood ensures it goes down quite easily, and the score's emotional changeability is an asset, not a liability. One is unlikely to be bored or bludgeoned.

The bonus is an Elégie originally composed for the play Vi ("We") and taken from the orchestral suite Gustav II Adolf. Sjögren was an organist and composer from the generation before Alfvén's. This tone poem is larger than its name might suggest. It begins solemnly, with the air of a funeral march, and there are episodes of almost Mahlerian anguish, but there are less forbidding ones too, and they provide both solace and contrast.

Willén and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra made an excellent impression a few months ago with their disc of Alfvén's Fifth Symphony (Naxos 8.557612 B000M2DNS2). The music-making here is no less satisfying, and now there are even fewer alternatives. (Willén has recorded all of Alfvén's symphonies for this label, and one hopes that he now will turn his attention to the other orchestral works.) The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra has been around since 1912, and has had both Herbert Blomstedt and Franz Welser-Möst as principal conductors at different times. It is one of Sweden's very best orchestras.

The engineering is excellent, and Richard Whitehouse, Naxos's stalwart annotator, tells us what we want to know in the booklet note. This is a worthwhile release.

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