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

Live review – Nicola Benedetti, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård: Polska Scotland opening concert


Nicola Benedetti (violin, photo by Martin Shields), Royal Scottish National Orchestra Thomas Søndergård

RSNO Studio, Glasgow
Broadcast Friday 16 April 2021, available online until Friday 30 July 2021

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Szymanowski Violin Concerto no.1 Op.35 (1922)
Panufnik Sinfonia Sacra (Symphony no.3) (1964)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The first concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Polska Scotland season provided a tempting mix of 20th century pieces. The season is exploring connections between the two countries, and watching the accompanying video (at the bottom of this page) reveals a number of interesting and pertinent connections, not least in the orchestra itself.

The choice of repertoire here was refreshing, too. Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no.1 is more of a regular repertoire piece these days, but the same could certainly not be said of the inclusions from Mieczysław Weinberg, the Polish composer who found his way to Moscow in the 1940s, and Andrzej Panufnik, who fled Warsaw for London ten years later.

Weinberg’s parents moved to Poland from Moldova in 1916, and this concert began with the composer’s Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, exploring the heritage of his parents through the development of contrasting folk tunes. In this way he was following the lead of folk-based pieces for orchestra from the likes of Kodály, Enescu and Bartók, relishing the chance to project and develop the music of their home countries through the concert hall.

The RSNO strings were appropriately deadpan at the start, their cold and muted contributions expertly controlled and matched by suitable lighting in the hall. The woodwind gave heartfelt, soulful contributions, as did the orchestra leader, violinist Sharon Roffman, and these led to thrills and spills as the RSNO powered through the faster sections, urged on by Thomas Søndergård.


Nicola Benedetti was the soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no.1, a piece she started to play at the age of 16. Having lived with it for approximately the same length of time, she noted the increased popularity of the piece – and talked through how conductor Sondergaard’s vision of the music was slower than hers, giving her a renewed perspective.

The violin emerged rather magically from the brief but colourful orchestral introduction and dominated almost throughout, rich of tone and with extremely secure intonation. The vivid colours were an overriding feature of this performance, Søndergård achieving a sound balance between soloist and orchestra, but within the ensemble he probed the deeper shades of Szymanowski’s lyrical writing. Benedetti was passionate and driven, the searing high notes carrying easily above the orchestra and then doing their own work in ardent outpouring of the complex cadenza. Søndergård gave the piece more room than it normally receives, but this was to its benefit – and the capricious ending was beautifully weighted.

First violinist Jane Reid then recounted a Polish tour for the orchestra in 1978, which opened with Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra, receiving its first performance in the country. It was a daring choice from conductor Sir Alexander Gibson, given the composer’s departure for London in 1954, but Reid’s vivid account spoke of tears in the Warsaw audience. Indeed, it is hard to understand why the piece is not performed more today – given the Weinberg revival of late, the music of Panufnik is just as deserving.

This performance from the RSNO was intensely moving. The powerful opening fanfares of Vision I from the brass were razor sharp, and cut to an equally heartfelt Vision II from the strings, icy cold music of solemn countenance. This was blown apart by Vision III, where driven percussion gave way to onrushing strings the surging brass in music of dissonance and disquiet. The contrast with the final Hymn was even greater, the strings united again in a cold chorale, but gradually the music thawed and grew in power.

Sondergård expertly marshalled this section and its steady build, taking a broad tempo but controlling the unwavering intensity of Panufnik’s writing. The brass fanfares were resolute, but the final statement of the hymn had great resolve, an ultimately triumphant end – even if the dissonances remained, defiant to the finish.

This was a superb start to a season which promises much, with works to come from Lutosławski, Bacewicz and more Szymanowski – Nicola Benedetti will return to play his Violin Concerto no.2. On this evidence, all the online concerts are highly recommended.

You can watch the concert on the Royal Scottish National Orchestra website here

For more information on the Royal Scottish National Orchestra digital season, you can visit their website here

RSNO Friday Night Club – Beethoven’s Choral Symphony

The RSNO’s Friday Night Club is proving to be a popular series – and tonight’s instalment looks set to provide just the tonic needed to start the weekend. Conducted by Peter Oundjian, the orchestra return to Beethoven in a concert given at their home venue, the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, in 2016.

The vocal soloists are soprano Marita Sølberg, mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupić, tenor Ben Johnson and bass-baritone Stephan Loges, with the RSNO Chorus joining for the exultant choral finale.

You can watch the on the orchestra’s website here, or join on Facebook here

On record – Gustavo Díaz-Jerez: Maghek – Seven Symphonic Poems About The Canary Islands (Signum Classics)

Cristo Barrios (clarinet), Ricardo Descalzo (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Eduardo Portal

Gustavo Díaz-Jerez
Maghek: Ymarxa, Ayssuragan, Guanapay, Chigaday, Azaenegue, Erbane & Aranfaybo

Signum ClassicsSIGCD 612 [two discs, 137’50”]

Producer Matt Dilley
Engineers Mike Hatch, Tony Lewington

Recorded 17-20 November 2019 at Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Signum Classics issues of its most ambitious releases in Seven Symphonic Poems about the Canary Islands by the Tenerifan-born Gustavo Díaz-Jerez (b1970), a substantial undertaking such as ought to secure this acclaimed composer and pianist greater international prominence.

What’s the music like?

Although Smetana blazed the trail with Ma vlast, his cycle inspired by Bohemian legend and places, few recent composers have attempted such a sequence of interrelated movements – a notable exception being Pascal Dusapin with his Seven Solos for orchestra (1992-2009). This precedent may be significant as, though its subtitle implies something of a ‘suite touristique’, Maghek is the work of one respected for his research into the spectral and physical properties of sound. Not that Díaz-Jerez’s music is rarefied or academic; running parallel to its technical ingenuity is an involvement with Canarian history and topography as evident from the titles of each piece. This does not make for something naively illustrative or pictorial, but it does ensure an evocative dimension is manifest at every stage of a long and absorbing traversal.

It is not clear from Díaz-Jerez’s detailed and insightful booklet notes that the order in which these pieces are heard is the only intended sequence, and whether other permutations may be possible or even desirable. That they were premiered (and presumably can still be performed) individually rather suggests the latter, which itself adds a further layer of fascination to music already awash with mystery and intrigue. A reminder, too, that the image of the Canaries as a choice destination for holidaymakers seeking sun, sea and sand is far from the whole picture.

As presented, the cycle begins in Tenerife with its myriad gradations of light and shade, then to La Palma which unfolds as a concertante piece for clarinet and orchestra in which the latter gradually and ominously assumes dominance. By contrast, Lanzarote is represented by a full-blown piano concerto, a sometimes equable and at other times confrontational means through which to evoke interplay of natural and human elements. The forbidding terrain of La Gomera engenders music of textural intricacy and timbral finesse, then Gran Canaria brings something of a culmination with its cumulative interplay between relative stasis and dynamism toward a visceral climax. Fuerteventura imaginatively explores cultural contrasts and conflicts wrought across time, then El Hierro makes for an understated and even teasingly inconclusive ending.

Does it all work?

Yes, whatever the order in which these pieces are heard. Díaz-Jerez is clearly an orchestrator of ingenuity and resourcefulness, who understands how to realize the potential of his sizable forces, yet this would count for little were his sense of formal evolution not so sure-footed. The playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra leaves nothing to be desired under the expert guidance of Eduardo Portal, while both clarinetist Cristo Barrios and pianist Ricardo Decalzo seem fully attuned to music whose technical demands are confidently surmounted.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has a clarity and lustre which presents this music in the best possible light, while the composer’s annotations shed valuable light on the semantic derivations behind each piece. Do investigate this release, then try Díaz-Jerez’s piano cycle Mataludios (IBS182018).



You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website


You can discover more about this release at the Signum Classics website, and at a special dedicated website for the project here

RSNO Friday Night Club – Richard Strauss & Berg

Tonight, Friday 17 April, the RSNO Friday Night Club returns with an intriguing pair of characters. The first is Richard Strauss‘s Don Juan, one of his most celebrated symphonic poems, in which the 24-year old composer paints a portrait of the serial philanderer. Its high spirits mask a darker underbelly. Thomas Søndergård conducts.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill then joins the orchestra in a performance of Berg‘s Seven Early Songs. These very late Romantic nuggets, completed 20 years after Don Juan, show Berg straining at the limits of tonality and finding great intensity as he sets the work of seven different poets.

You can watch the on the orchestra’s website here, or join on Facebook here