ALFVEN: Symphony No. 2 / The Prodigal Son (Ireland National Symphony Orchestra/ Michael Ponder/ Niklas Willen) (Naxos: 8.555072)
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The music of Hugo Alfvén has always occupied a place of honour in the hearts of the Swedish people. Few composers have been seen to represent the soul of the people as he did. The fact that he lived for a long time in the heart of Dalecarlia, the landscape which is associated more than any other with genuine Swedish folk-music tradition, almost certainly contributed to this conception of him.
In fact, Alfvén came from Stockholm where, at the age of fifteen, he became a pupil at the Music Conservatory with the violin as his main subject. There, during the 1890s, he made progress, while also taking private composition lessons from Johan Lindegren, the foremost Swedish counterpoint expert of the time. Alfvén earned a living as a violinist at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. His time in the opera orchestra (Hovkapellet) gave him profound insight into the characters and capabilities of the various instruments. The colourful, virtuoso style of orchestration that he developed has been compared with that of Richard Strauss.
For a ten-year period beginning in 1897, Alfvén spent much of his time travelling around Europe, partly with the aid of a Jenny Lind Scholarship. He refined his violin technique in Brussels; he learned conducting in Dresden. He turned down a position as teacher of composition in Stockholm. Instead, from 1910, he based himself in Uppsala, where he became director musices at the university. There he began a collaboration with the male-voice choir Orphei Drängar (OD); he was to remain the choirs conductor until 1947 and, with tours in Europe and the United States, he was to spread its fame internationally. For many years he also conducted other choirs, including Allmänna Sången and Siljanskören. For half a century, Alfvén played a dominant rôle in the Swedish choral tradition not only as a conductor, but also as a composer and arranger.
Alfvéns talents were not confined to music. He was a fine painter of watercolours and, as a young man, considered devoting himself to painting. He later wrote a captivating four-volume autobiography which not only describes his own career but also provides illuminating insights into many other aspects of Swedish musical life.
Many music-lovers are most familiar with Alfvén as a merry, folksy musician in works such as Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil), internationally one of the most familiar pieces of Swedish music, Vallflickans dans (Dance of the Herd-Girl), the ballet Den förlorade sonen (The Prodigal Son) and a number of choral songs. In his symphonies, five in all, and symphonic poems, we more frequently encounter an elegiac and often dramatic aspect of his personality. His First Symphony, written in 1897, already reveals a Sturm und Drang-like melancholy that recurs regularly in his music. On the other hand, there is also a positive side, which was soon to come fully into bloom.
Alfvéns Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.11, was first performed on 2nd May 1899, conducted by the composers colleague Wilhelm Stenhammar. The event had been preceded by a dispute within the Musical Academy, which resulted in the withdrawal of Alfvéns scholarship for studies abroad. The reason was that the music he had handed in, to show what he had hitherto achieved, was incomplete. The parts were not written out in a score and the finale was missing. He had worked on three movements during the summer and early autumn of 1897, but it was unclear how the piece would continue. The majority of the jury did not even bother to examine what he had supplied.
The situation was saved by Conrad Nordqvist, conductor of the Opera Orchestra, who had given the first performance of the First Symphony and had studied the new work in detail. He reached the opinion that it was of high quality, and sharply criticized his colleagues in the Academy who, for purely procedural reasons, had refused to familiarise themselves with the music. They were caught napping, and the scholarship was renewed.
By contrast, when the symphony was eventually complete, the view was taken that such an outstanding example of compositional technique could scarcely have been the work of a 26-year-old. It was suspected that Lindegren, whose talent was well known, had helped out. In fact, however, Lindegren had not even seen the music and, at the concert, was overwhelmed by what his former pupil had achieved.
The first performance, in the spring of 1899, was a great success and represented Alfvéns definitive breakthrough. In the autumn the symphony was played again, and soon afterwards it was also heard in several other Nordic countries. It would be no exaggeration to say that it represents the entry of internationalism into Swedish music. The majority of composers concerned themselves only with national romanticism; Alfvén had taken a broader view. What exactly had he wished to portray in this music? Extra-musical associations were in vogue, but the symphony is not programmatic in the Lisztian or Straussian sense. As so often with Alfvén, the inspiration can be traced back to actual experiences, in this case of the Stockholm archipelago, but not just the idyllic image of sunshine and beauty. He was especially attracted by the sea, which could be extremely dramatic, especially in autumn. Such experiences would later permeate many of Alfvéns works, in particular the tone poem En skärgårdssägen (A Legend of the Skerries) and the Fourth Symphony with the subtitle Från havsbandet (From the Outermost Skerries).
After the introduction, as promising as sunrise on a fresh, dewy morning, the music acquires an intoxicating energy. This mood, however, does not last. In Alfvéns own words: My original intention was that the entire symphony should well forth in a flood of light and harmony. But Fate decreed otherwise. As soon as the first movement is over, the sun is hidden by the clouds, and twilight sets in. There follows a stormy night during which, figuratively speaking, I had to fight for my life in order not to be defeated by the inner conflicts that were at that time close to destroying me completely. Here, too, he was influenced by his memories of two incidents (in a sailing-boat and while swimming) that almost cost him his life. Alfvén is at his most profound in the finale, the most complex movement in the symphony and one which differs markedly from those that precede it. It consists of two contrasting sections: a calm but ominous prelude, followed by a highly charged fugue. The prelude was composed later in the autumn of 1897 in Berlin, while the fugue was sketched in Paris during the spring of the following year and completed in the summer, at Alfvéns home in the archipelago. One sleepless night the chorale Jag går mot döden var jag går suddenly started resounding in my inner ear, with the tone colour of the last trump, wrote Alfvén. He decided to use this as the expression of a more harrowing effect than a normal double fugue can achieve. The majesty of Death comes between the combatants and causes them to lower their weapons for a moment. Soon, however, the battle is under way again, now with Death as a constant companion. I constructed a new theme from the first chorale motif the third idea that I wove into the subsequent course of the fugue. The new theme is at first only heard faintly, its notes blended with those of the two earlier ideas. Later the premonition of death becomes ever stronger, until the entire brass section, playing forte, tries to urge the combatants to