December 29, 2022


Hugo Alfvén: Symphonies Nos. 1-5 (complete); Festival Overture; Suite from “The Mountain King”; Uppsala Rhapsody; Suite from “The Prodigal Son”; Dalecarlian Rhapsody; Festival Overture; Andante religioso; Synnöve Solbakken Suite; A Country Tale Suite; Bonus disc including music of Alfvén, August Söderman, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Lars-Erik Larsson, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, and Dag Wirén. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Niklas Willén; Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu. Naxos. $46.99 (7 CDs).

     With its broad and deep catalog filled with excellent performances of music both familiar and little-known, Naxos has often found that re-releases of existing material in new guise can attract listeners through the revised packaging and bring back into the marketplace music that may have fallen out of favor or simply been forgotten for reasons not necessarily related to its quality. The company’s single-disc re-releases tend to work well when simply reissued, but multi-disc sets consisting of recordings from many different time periods tend to be much more of a mixed bag. A new seven-CD box focused on Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) is one such potpourri; and while it contains far more positive elements than negatives, it is rather difficult to negotiate and ends up being somewhat less satisfying than the music itself and the quality of the readings would indicate.

     Most of the performances are conducted by Niklas Willén, for whom Alfvén’s music is something of a cause: Willén understands it deeply and gets to the heart of it again and again. But the scattershot nature of the performances here somewhat undermines their enjoyability. Instead of working with a single orchestra and refining its musicians’ playing of Alfvén’s works, Willén is heard here with five different orchestras in performances recorded between 1996 and 2005. All the ensembles are quite competent, but despite the internationalization of orchestral sound, they do have differing strengths, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland not quite as well-suited to the material, or perhaps not quite as comfortable with it, as are the other orchestras.

     The recordings of Alfvén’s five symphonies, which have substantially different characters and were written during more than half a century (the original version of No. 1 dates to 1897, the final version of No. 5 to 1952), are the main attraction here. The rest of the music is scattershot, since the individual discs included in the box are here simply re-released in their original form. So Symphony No. 1 is coupled with an overture, a suite from a ballet-pantomime, and the second of the composer’s three Swedish rhapsodies. No. 2 is joined by a ballet suite, No. 3 by the third Swedish rhapsody and a tone poem, and so on. The dates of the various works are all over the place, so the shorter pieces do nothing to put the symphonies in context, and the track arrangement of the CDs is not chronological, so it is very hard to hear stylistic and expressive changes over time in Alfvén’s approach to composition. These flaws, which are inherent in the original discs rather than created by the boxed set itself, but which are accentuated as they accumulate in boxed-set form, become increasingly irritating if a listener tries to impose some order (chronological or by type of music or on some other basis) on the material. Constant disc-switching and track-switching within discs is not conducive to enjoyment of the music. And a few things resulting from this arrangement are particularly galling, such as the fact that the very first Swedish rhapsody, which is by far the best-known, does not show up until the seventh CD, which is labeled “bonus” and is even more of a mishmash than the previous six – to such an extent that it contains three additional Alfvén pieces (one of which is also included on another of these CDs), with one by Dag Wirén appearing between the first and second by Alfvén for no discernible reason. This “bonus” features an entirely different orchestra and conductor from the other six discs, which means that, very oddly, Willén presents the two less-familiar Swedish rhapsodies and Okko Kamu gets the best-known one. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with Kamu’s disc: the performances, which date to 1994, are the earliest in the entire set, but are all well-balanced and played skillfully by the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. Still, the overall feeling created by this set is one of slapdash presentation: by simply re-releasing seven CDs of various vintages this way, Naxos does a disservice to the highly interesting music of a major Scandinavian composer.

     However, the company also does him a major service – and for that reason, this remains a very desirable, even important release, for all the shortcomings of its presentation. Swedish classical music does not have the international currency and prominence of the music of other Scandinavian nations: Sweden lacks a composer such as Norway’s Grieg, Denmark’s Nielsen, or Finland’s Sibelius (although his native language was Swedish). Alfvén is the most-prominent Swedish composer of his time, and the chance to hear a good selection of his music in well-played performances led by knowledgeable conductors is very worthwhile indeed. There are many ways in which this boxed set could have been better-arranged and better-presented, but all would have required remastering or at least a level of rearrangement of the material, with all the attendant technical and financial challenges that would be involved. So although buyers of this box may wish for a more user-friendly offering of a substantial amount of Alfvén’s music, listeners should be grateful for what is offered here: the chance to listen to a great deal of fascinating, expertly crafted music that carefully and intelligently explores many aspects of Swedish life, legends, folk songs and literature. Alfvén is definitely a composer worth knowing, and this boxed set, although flawed, is an excellent way to make his acquaintance – or deepen it, for listeners who are already familiar with a smattering of his music.

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