ALFVEN: Symphony No. 5 (Niklas Willen/ Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.557612)
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Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960)
Symphony No. 5 • Andante religioso
Although the music of Hugo Alfvén has never been widely heard internationally, in his native Sweden he ranks, by the side of his slightly older contemporary Wilhelm Stenhammar, as the most significant composer to have emerged after Berwald. Born in Stockholm on 1 May 1872, he studied at the Conservatory there, and then, after two years as a violinist in the opera orchestra, devoted himself to composing. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he was ambitious: two substantial symphonies, Nos. 1 in F minor and No. 2 in D major [Naxos 8.553962 and 8.555072] appeared in 1897 and 1898, with the Stockholm première of the latter in 1900 confirming his national reputation.
Over the following quarter century, a number of major works appeared: these include the Third Symphony [Naxos 8.553729] and Fourth Symphony [Naxos 8.557284], the oratorio The Lord's Prayer, Revelation Cantata, the ballet-pantomime The Mountain King, and three Swedish Rhapsodies, of which the first, Midsummer Vigil [Naxos 8.553115] remains his most popular piece. After 1923 his output focused 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 folk-music. Alfvén died, the elder statesman of Swedish music, in Falun on 8 May 1960.
In its outward appearance, the Fifth Symphony looks right back to the two works with which the composer had established his reputation in the late 1890s. Alfvén began it in 1942, two decades after the completion of his previous symphony, in the process recycling music used in his ambitious ballet The Mountain King (1923), and managed to complete the first movement in time for its performance at a concert marking his seventieth birthday. Thereafter he struggled considerably with the symphony, which finally received a complete performance on 14 April 1953, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra being conducted by Carl von Garaguly. Although the equivocal reception was largely on account of its backward-looking nature, it confirmed to Alfvén that the piece was not yet finalised and he further revised it until 1958. Even then he admitted that the latter two movements had not worked out as intended, and the symphony has received relatively few complete performances in the 45 years since his death.
Performed independently, as it has been on several occasions, as First Movement, the opening Allegro is a substantial and coherent entity in itself. The Lento introduction brings with it a mood of rapidly intensifying anticipation, before the main portion of the movement is ushered in with a lithe theme which quickly makes way for its successor, a gentler, rhapsodic utterance. Interestingly, the whole of the movement so far, slow introduction as well as the exposition, is now repeated, this time leading into a strenuous development which is centred on the energetic theme. There follows a reprise where both main themes are heard, albeit in reverse order and with subtly altered orchestration, then an extensive coda, in effect a second development, which reworks the introduction and appears to be bringing the movement full circle, were it not, that is, for the lack of a clinching cadence in the abrupt final gesture.
The remainder of the symphony attempts, in the composer's view, not wholly convincingly, to achieve a sense of formal and expressive closure. The Andante is among Alfvén's most elegantly-realised symphonic movements, emerging from its dreamy opening to take in a more animated central section, begun by caroling woodwind, that reaches a surging climax before returning to its initial serenity. What follows is a spectral intermezzo, with prominent xylophone and sardonic gestures from brass, which takes on the aura of a 'danse macabre' as it progresses. A central section is more suave in manner, though still with an underlying malevolence, and leads naturally into a resumption of the music heard earlier. It remains for the extensive finale to wrap up the whole structure. Opening with an imperious idea, the movement soon heads into another of Alfvén's generously evocative themes, before a transition back to the opening idea and a full exposition repeat. There follows a resourceful development of both themes, and then, after a moment of anticipation, the movement heads into a modified reprise. Beginning with the second theme, the coda brings back the imperious opening idea to triumphal effect, underlined by three powerful final chords.
From much earlier in Alfvén's career comes the Andante religioso, an intermezzo drawn from the Revelation Cantata (Op. 31) written during spring 1913 for the consecration of a church in Saltsjöbaden. Although the original item sets a text beginning 'Comfort my people', the present arrangement for harp, celesta and strings fully captures the music's meditative solemnity, as well as evoking the sense of spacious vistas within its relatively brief duration.