* Symphony No. 5 in a, op. 54
* Andante religioso
Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willen.
Naxos 8.557612 Total time: 57:47
Summary for the Busy Executive: I've heard this song before.
Hugo Alfven comes from about the same generation as Stenhammar,
Peterson-Berger, and Rangstrom. He outlived all of them and, I believe,
out-produced them as well. We know him best at his best: the three
Swedish Rhapsodies, especially the first, "Midsummer Vigil," which became,
believe it or not, a pop hit for Roy Rogers as well as for Chet Atkins
in the Fifties. But there is a lot more in almost every genre.
Alfven began as a post-Wagnerian and really ended there as well. An
almost exact contemporary of Ralph Vaughan Williams, he never moved
seriously into Modernism, although you can hear in the later works small
accommodations to it, mostly in orchestration. His best music shows a
grafting of Swedish folk melos with Wagnerian habits of construction,
particularly through sequence (repeating the same phrase a tone higher
or lower in succession).
I've not heard an Alfven symphony before, and perhaps this isn't
the one to hear first. It gave him the most trouble of all his five
symphonies. He began it in 1942, made a major revision in 1955, and
was tinkering with it as late as 1958. In any case, it sounds like
something from the 1880s. It earned a less-than-enthusiastic reception,
not surprising in a musical culture that had heard the works of Ingvar
Lidholm. The received wisdom, stemming from the composer himself, that
the last two movements (of four) hadn't turned out as well as he had
planned, is confirmed by the fact that the first movement gets programmed
occasionally as an independent piece. As far as I'm concerned, the first
movement is the weakest of the four. Its thematic material doesn't
differ all that significantly from the transitional passages -- it's
that undistinguished -- and the developments don't really go much of
anywhere. It sounds like music Wagner might have written on an off-day
and either rejected or sold to gullible Americans. I miss the melodic
superiority, based on Swedish folk sources, Alfven could summon up. For
me, things get better in the last three movements. The second, a lovely
Wagnerian quasi-religious chorale, is probably modeled on similar moods
in Tannhauser or Lohengrin. In the third -- I would say the most
immediately attractive -- a danse macabre, with an extensive xylophone
part, alternates with pastoral serenity. The finale is a little loose,
but at least, unlike the first movement, it moves. Ambitiously laid
out, it recalls ideas of previous movements in a vigorous rondo. Despite
its flaws, this symphony made me want to hear the others. Good thing
Naxos has put out a complete cycle.
The Andante religioso comes from Alfven's Revelation Cantata, a large
work for choir and orchestra. It functions as an orchestral interlude.
Alfven produced a lot of choral music -- very good, what I've heard of
it -- since, like Brahms, he conducted choirs to make a living, and I'd
like to hear the big work complete. The excerpt, out of context,
unfortunately didn't hit me as much of anything. Perhaps it works
better in its intended place.
The performances are okay, thoroughly professional, but nothing more.
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