On Record – Various orchestras / Niklas Willén: Alfvén: Complete Symphonies; Suites & Rhapsodies (Naxos)

Alfvén Complete Symphonies; Suites & Rhapsodies

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Niklas Willén

Naxos 8.507015 [7 discs, including a bonus of Swedish Orchestral favourites]

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén was born 150 years ago this year, and this attractive box set from Naxos celebrates the anniversary by bringing together the five symphonies recorded under the baton of fellow countryman Niklas Willén. They are presented alongside a number of Alfvén’s suites and orchestral works.

What’s the music like?

Attractive, airy and extremely enjoyable. Before Alfvén came along, Sweden had very few symphonic composers of note, Berwald excepted, and this cycle of substantial musical structures helped bring the symphony to a new audience.

Listening to each of the five works plots a course through Alfvén’s career, revealing him to be a gifted melodist and orchestrator. He writes with a clarity suggesting he studied the music of Mendelssohn and Schumann, but the orchestral works have an opulence closer to Richard Strauss and Wagner.

The Symphony no.1 in F minor Op.7 is laden with drama, if not yet fully confident in its structural steps. The Symphony no.2 in D major Op.11, which firmly established Alfvén as a composer, finds a glowing, lyrical approach. The Symphony no.3 in E major Op.23 is a joy, celebrating love and nature in the brightest E major, with richly tuneful episodes and rapturous outpourings from the strings. The Symphony no.4 in C minor Op.39, subtitled From The Outermost Skerries, has impressive depth, its four movements running continuously as they tell of the unique landscape of the Stockholm archipelago. Finally the Symphony no.5 in A minor Op.54 has a broader melodic platform, darker in some respects but loaded with extra resolve.

The accompanying suites show off Alfvén’s affinity with the stage and a natural aptitude for storytelling – The Prodigal Son, Synnöve Solbakken and A Country Tale all have good tunes and clear, bright orchestration. The shorter pieces included here should be better known, too – the Swedish Rhapsodies are winsome pieces, while the Festival Overture rises well above its functional role and the Elegy is equally meaningful.

Does it all work?

Yes, thanks to vibrant performances from each of the four orchestras used by Naxos in the gradual assembly of this cycle, all under the expert guidance of Niklas Willén. His choices of tempo are instinctively right, backed by an innate understanding for the flow of this music. An extra disc of Swedish orchestral favourites, featuring works from Alfvén, Larsson, Peterson-Berger, Söderman, Stenhammar and Wirén, is a considerable bonus.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with enthusiasm. While other composers may be ahead of him in the symphonic popularity contest, Alfvén’s music is highly attractive and full of good things for the casual or the attentive listener. Take this chance to explore further and you will not be disappointed!

Listen / Buy

You can find out more about this recording, and explore purchase options, on the Naxos website

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