ALFVEN: Symphony No. 1 / Uppsala Rhapsody / Mountain King (Niklas Willen/ Royal Scottish National Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553962)
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Symphony No. 1 in Fminor, Op. 7; Suite from Bergakungen
Festival Overture;Uppsala Rhapsody
The music of Hugo Alfven has always been close to the hearts of theSwedish people. More than any other composer he is regarded as representing thespirit of the country. This might also be due to the fact that for many yearshe lived in Dalecarlia, the province where genuine folk-music tradition is atits strongest.
Alfven came in fact from Stockholm, and from the age of fifteen studiedthe violin at the Conservatory there. It was thus on the violin that hesupported himself during the 1890s whilst taking private lessons in compositionwith Johan Lindegren, the leading contrapuntalist of the day. He earned hisdaily bread as a violinist at the Opera, and his time in the orchestra theregave him comprehensive insights into the nature and possibilities of differentinstruments. The colourful and virtuoso orchestration skills he developed havebeen compared with those of Richard Strauss.
From 1897 Alfven spent ten years travelling in Europe, partly financedby a Jenny Lind scholarship. In Brussels he polished his violin technique, andin Dresden he studied conducting. He declined a post as teacher of compositionin Stockholm, settling instead in Uppsala where he was appointed DirectorMusices at the University in 1910. He was to stay there for thirteen years.
In Uppsala Alfven began a collaboration with the male, mostly academic,choir Orphei Drangar ('The Servants of Orpheus'), known as OD, remaining itsconductor until 1947, and bringing the choir to international renown throughtours in Europe and the United States. He also conducted other well-knownchoirs, such as Allmanna S?Ñngen and Siljanskoren. Thus for over half a centuryAlfven played a dominant r??le in Swedish choral tradition, not only as aconductor, but also as a composer and arranger.
Alfven's talents were not confined to music alone. He was anaccomplished painter of water colours and had in his youth contemplated acareer as a painter. Furthermore he proved to be an engaging writer with anautobiography in four volumes which describes Swedish music life at the time,as well as his own life.
Many music-lovers know Alfven best as the popular, cheerful entertainerin compositions such as Midsommarvaka ('Midsummer Vigil') (thebest-known piece of Swedish music outside Sweden), Vallflickans dans ('Danceof the Shepherd Girl'), the ballet Den forlorade sonen ('The ProdigalSon') and a great many choral songs. His five symphonies and his symphonicpoems reveal a different, more elegiac and often more dramatic side. His FirstSymphony, composed in 1897, has a melancholy Sturm und Drang moodthat recurs at intervals in his later compositions, but there is also alife-affirming side that flourished in his Second Symphony, two yearslater.
Most artists know how difficult it can be to find the right ideas if thesubject does not appeal. A lack of ideas is far more trying than the labour ofcomposition itself. It was failing inspiration that threatened the genesis ofAlfven's Festspel, commissioned for the opening of the Royal DramaticTheatre in Stockholm in 1908. The project obsessed him for a long while withoutany creative impulses coming to him, and he began to fear that the music wouldnot be written in time. It was a visit from the poet Verner von Heidenstamfinally inspired him. They were talking about the time of Charles XII, andimmediately blaring fanfares and a lively polonnaise rhythm sprang to mind. Aday later the piece was finished, in plenty of time for the opening. The Festspelhas now long been used as official music at a multitude of solemn occasionsin Sweden.
Of Alfven's three Swedish Rhapsodies it is the middle one thathas remained the least known. It was composed in 1907 for the celebrations atUppsala University of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Linn?ªus. Theoriginal commission was for a vocal work, for which the poet Karlfeldt wasinvited to write the text. This time it was the poet who was uninspired and waseventually obliged to decline the invitation. The University instead proposedthat Alfven write an Academic Overture of the type that Brahms hadwritten.
Like his predecessorAlfven began with a handful of student songs and other popular melodies by thelikes of Bellman, Lindblad, Wennerberg and Prince Gustavus ('Oscar I's musicalson'). In contrast to the rigid and artfully constructed Midsommarvaka, theUppsala Rhapsody is a loosely constructed cavalcade. The overture,however, did not receive the reception Alfven had expected. The Dean of theUniversity, literary historian Henrik Sch??ck, took exception to certain themesthat were known as drinking-songs. The composer was poking fun at academic dignity, hemaintained. Perplexed, Alfven assured Sch??ck that he had not thought about thetexts at all, focussing rather on the melodies' suitability as rhapsodicthemes. That this was not an entirely truthful answer is betrayed by the work'sbachanalian exuberance. Towards the end of the piece the horns paraphrase thedrinking song Helan g?Ñr ('Down in one'), and, with the help of theclarinets, they describe the passage of the schnapps down the throat. This helater admitted to, with thinly disguised delight.
Alfven used the sound resources of the later romantic orchestra in themost virtuosic ways in his Fourth Symphony and the ballet-pantomime Berga-?¡kungen('The Mountain King') which he worked on between 1918-19 and 1917-1922respectively. The ballet is based on the legend of Den Bergtagna, theshepherdess who is abducted by the mountain king and rescued by her beloved.
They are aided by a troll, who, however, indignant at not getting the girlhimself, lets them die in a snow-storm. The subject was popular in the romanticera, and had been used fifty years earlier in an opera by Ivar Hallstrom, whichwas also the first Swedish opera to use folk music as its base.
Alfven used as inspiration the work of John Bauer, the illustrator whosework in the children's story-book Bland tomtar och troll ('Among goblinsand trolls') shaped a whole generation's images of the mystical creatures ofthe forest. The premi?¿re at the Stockholm Opera in 1923 was choreographed byJean Borlin, the internationally renowned moderniser of ballet and a majorforce behind Les ballets suedois in Paris. When the work later fell fromthe repertory Alfven constructed the concert suite recorded here. The centralmovements belong to some of the most magical moments in Alfven's output, whilethe final Vallflickans dans ('Dance of the Shepherd Girl') has becomeone of the most treasured lollipops in Swedish music. Not least as anindispensable encore for Swedish orchestras on concert tours abroad.
Bergakungen was Alfven's last major work. Although he lived for another forty years,almost nothing from the later years can compare with the great works from theprevious decades. The only exception is the Dalarapsodi ('DalecarlianRhapsody') from 1931. He did return to Bergakungen on a number ofoccasions but seldom added anything new, although the Fifth Symphony clearlybears a number of similarities.
Symphony No. 1 was first performed in 1897 by the Hovkapelletand its principal conductor Conrad Nordqvist. Ever since the time of thepioneering Roman in the 1730s, it was the orchestra of the Royal Opera, the Hovkapellet,which ha