Niklas Willen: Hugo Alfvén Symphonies Nos 1 to 5

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Hugo Alfven Symphony No 1 Op 7

Symphony No. 2 in D Major Op. 11 (1899)

Conducted by Niklas Willen with the Ireland National Symphony Orchestra.

Hugo Alvén, plakett på Stadshuset i Stockholm
Hugo Alvén, plakett på Stadshuset i Stockholm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I. Moderato - 00:00
II. Andante - 12:07
III. Allegro - 30:34
IV. Preludio - Adagio - 36:.37
IV. Fuga - Allegro Energico - 43:48

Alfvén's Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.11, was first performed on 2nd May 1899, conducted by the composer's colleague Wilhelm Stenhammar. The event had been preceded by a dispute within the Musical Academy, which resulted in the withdrawal of Alfvén's 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 Alfvén's 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.

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 Alfvén's 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 Alfvén's 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 come to their senses. But no one is listening to the voice of Death any more. Everything has gone berserk, and the fugue ends before a fatal blow has been struck. Nobody has given way. That was the thought process at the conclusion of the fugue.'

Hugo Alfven Symphony No 3 Op 23

Hugo Alfvén - Symphony No. 4 (1919)
With Arndis Halla (Soprano) and Johann Valdimarsson (Tenor). Conducted by Niklas Willen with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

I. Moderato - Allegretto, ma non troppo - 00:00
II. Allegro - Moderato - Allegro - 11:01
III. Lento - Maestoso - Molto appassionato - 16:01
English: The composer Hugo Alfvén by Peder Sev...
English: The composer Hugo Alfvén by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1903 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
IV. Allegro agitato - 35:11

A gifted watercolourist and vividly illustrative author, Alfvén was well equipped by ability as well as temperament to depict the unique island landscape of the Stockholm archipelago, in the vicinity of which he spent much of his formative years. The 1904 tone poem A Legend of the Skerries evokes a soundworld far removed from the drama of his first two symphonies, and it was hardly surprising when, four years later, he decided to give his experiences of the archipelago symphonic expression. Work on the Fourth Symphony progressed fitfully and it was not until 1918, following several sailing expeditions and the taking of a sabbatical from his post as Director of Music at Uppsala University, that he was able to proceed apace. The work was completed by the spring of 1919 and received its première at a gala concert at the Stockholm Musical Academy on 4th November that year, followed by a public airing on 23rd January 1920. Despite reservations expressed by several prominent critics, general acclaim was forthcoming both then and at subsequent performances in Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna and Berlin.

One of the main reservations concerned the use of two voices, soprano and tenor, as part of the orchestral apparatus, though Alfvén was doubtless aware of a precedent in Nielsen's Third Symphony of 1911 in this respect. The other criticism concerned the erotic nature of its programme, one which Alfvén refuted to the extent of dedicating the work to his then teenage daughter Margita. He nevertheless stated that "My symphony tells the tale of two young souls. The action takes place in the skerries, where sea rages among the rocks on gloomy, stormy nights, by moonlight and in sunshine ... the moods of nature are no less than symbols for the human heart". Playing continuously, the work falls into four sections, a first movement with slow introduction, depicting desire on the part of a young man, an intermezzo-like scherzo, evoking the musing of a young girl, a slow movement depicting the happiness of love, and a finale whose storm-swept mood is an analogy for the demise of that happiness and in which the solo voices are notable by their absence.

The mysterious opening sets the scene, rippling piano figuration and deft percussion building to a brief climax before dissolving into the sound of solo violin against softly held upper strings. Its theme migrates to lower strings, gaining in emotional intensity with music of Straussian opulence. Ardour subsides as the tenor enters for the first time, intoning an expressive melody. A faster tempo sees the brief first climax recalled, followed by a resumption of the tenor vocalise. Descending woodwind arabesques presage the scherzo section, featuring darting figures on solo wind, after which, underpinned by the piano, the soprano makes a wistful first appearance. The darting music resumes in more elaborate scoring, at length vanishing into the ether. The 'slow movement' now begins searchingly in lower strings, moving to an affirmative climax, before subsiding into gentle rhapsody. The lush scoring embodies elements of tenor and soprano vocalise, both voices re-entering, intertwined, to enhance the mood of ecstatic fulfilment. A more capricious quality brings about the movement's culmination, shot through with a fatalistic certainty that is held at bay while the solo voices recede beyond earshot. The music darkens appreciably, a brief but baleful outburst on brass ushering in the final section in a mood of storm and stress. Woodwind add their malevolent touch; then, after magical textures for piano, harp and strings, the solo cor anglais intones a melody that suggests resignation in the face of the inevitable. Ideas heard earlier are recalled, gathering momentum for a final, tragic climax that alludes to the beginning of the section and, in turn, to that of the whole work. It remains for the closing bars to return the music to the watery depths out of which it arose.

Hugo Alfvén - Symphony No. 5 (1942)
Conducted by Niklas Willen with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra.

I. Lento - Allegro non troppo - 00:00
II. Andante - 19:47
III. Lento - Allegro - Presto molto agitato - 28:14
IV. Finale: Allegro con brio - 35:59

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.