Rediscovering Hugo Alfvén

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ALFVÉN: Symphony No. 1. Drapa, Op. 27. Midsommarvaka / Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Łukasz Borowicz, cond / CPO 555 043-2

Known in America (and much of Europe) primarily for his light works such as the Swedish Rhapsodies and Midsummer Vigil (the latter presented on this disc), Hugo Alfvén nonetheless wrote some really serious music in his life, and the first symphony presented here is surely one of these. A work with real meat on its bones, it is thematically interesting, well developed, and surprisingly dramatic—at least, in the skilled hands of conductor Łukasz Borowicz, who gives it an impressive reading here. It is at least as good a work as Dvořak’s famous Ninth Symphony, with varied themes and tempi; it’s a shame it’s not better known in the United States.

Indeed, if anything, the first movement is so chock-full of interesting melodies that by the time its 15 ½-minute length is over, you may be forgiven for wondering if Alfvén hadn’t written two linked movements. He sticks to a lesser number of themes in the slow movement, knitting the music together skillfully. The third movement immediately wakes you up with its cheerful, supercharged introduction, and skillfully weaves tunes that sound like Swedish folk melodies—but not all of them. Again, Alfvén moves skillfully between major and minor, going back and forth with alacrity as he weaves his way through the movement. It has a surprising trio section at half tempo before picking up steam once again.

The fourth movement is also in a chipper mood, again contrasts different themes, but to my mind isn’t as serious a piece of music as the first three movements, but it does pick up steam and become more serious in the last minute.

The tone poem Drapa is a fairly interesting piece, although less varied in its approach as the symphony. Written as a memorial to King Oscar II, it combines the ceremonial with the pastoral. The CD ends with a particularly vigorous and non-sentimental reading of Alfvén’s most famous and popular piece, his Midsummer Vigil. I’ve always like this piece, but in this instance I think Borowicz could have scored more points by relaxing the tempo so that it didn’t sound so stiff and fast.

An interesting take on one of Sweden’s most famous composers.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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