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CLASSICAL  September 2008

CLASSICAL September 2008

Subject:

Alfven's Fourth

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 2 Sep 2008 15:58:27 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (62 lines)

Hugo Alfven

*  Symphony #4, "From the Outermost Skerries", op. 39 (1919)
*  Festival Overture, op. 52 (1944)

Arndis Halla, soprano
Johann Valdimarsson, tenor
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willen
Naxos 8.557284 Total time: 58:12

Summary for the Busy Executive: Northern sketch.

Hugo Alfven may be the most popular Swedish composer in Sweden.  And why
not?  Marvelous tunes in sumptuous Straussian orchestrations characterize
him at his best.  Unlike someone like Sibelius, Stenhammar, or Nielsen,
however, Alfven's music lacks a strong intellectual or architectural
component.  Listeners usually don't have to fret over whether they will
"get it."

The Fourth Symphony, in four movements played without breaks, is a case
in point.  In a basically Wagnerian idiom, the work proceeds pictorially
and dramatically more than argumentatively.  Alfven, incidentally, also
painted, and to me his music brims with pictures.  He'd have made a fine
film composer.

Combining tone poem and symphony, the Fourth tells the story of a failed
love affair: the boy's longing in the first movement; the awakening of
love in the girl in the scherzo second; the growth of the couple's love
in the slow movement; and the finale recounting the tragic ending.  To
drive home the point, Alfven includes a soprano and a tenor in wordless
melody, giving us the dramatic effect of opera without the messy obstacles
of a decent libretto and workable stagecraft.  The drama works itself
out along Wagnerian principles, with Leitmotiven for the boy, girl, and,
of course, dat ol' debbil sea.  You don't bother with first and second
subjects, exposition, development, and the like.  You just give yourself
over to the story and the atmosphere.  The symphony will drive you nuts
if you expect Sibelius.  Yet, at an elemental level, the score not only
works, but stands as one of the composer's best.  From the opening
measures, Alfven hooks you with a gorgeous evocation of the sea at
night and moves on with a sure sense of musical rhetoric and drama.

The Festival Overture has no specific programmatic intent and definitely
points to Alfven's lighter side, with heavier Swedish folk inflections
in the themes.  The inventive, kaleidoscopic orchestration stands out,
dressing an almost comical theme for various roles: rustic, hero, lyric
poet, and so on.  At times, you may think yourself in the middle of
Strauss's Don Juan or Eulenspiegel, but it's not a simple matter of
Alfven cribbing.  He really does regard music in much the same way Strauss
does - something that evokes pictures in the mind, and, in both cases,
fairly grand pictures at that.

Willen and his Icelanders give loving performances of both works.  The
singers sound, appropriately, Romantically lost and lonely - what some
young, inexperienced people aspire to as proof of love.

Steve Schwartz

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