Hugo Alfvén, to the degree he is known at all outside Scandinavia, is known for his charming First Swedish Rhapsody (Midsommarvaka, or Midsummer Vigil), a lightweight tone poem that figures often as not on pops concerts. Nothing could be further from that sound world than Alfvén's Fifth Symphony which partakes of the cold and subtly menacing atmosphere of the North. It was his last symphony and it cost him a great deal of effort to complete. In 1942 he wrote the twenty-minute first movement which was included in a 70th birthday concert of his music. It took him almost twenty years to get the other three movements into their final shape; he last made revisions in 1960 not long before his death. The first movement has continued to be played as an independent piece, and the whole symphony has rarely been played, certainly not outside Scandinavia. But it is one of Alfvén's strongest (and perhaps strangest) works. There has been only one previous recording of it, included in a BIS box set of all the symphonies conducted by Neeme Järvi. I have not heard that recording. But on the basis of the present performance I am so satisfied that I doubt I'll seek out the Järvi disc.
The symphony is in four movements. The first begins with a slow introduction that leads into a sonata allegro movement with contrasting first and second themes -- the first sprightly, if somewhat grotesque, followed by a rhapsodic lyrical theme. The entire introduction and exposition are repeated exactly before leading into a development that emphasizes the grotesquerie of the first theme. The recapitulation is an almost literal repeat of the exposition, but with the order of the themes reversed, and a long coda that sounds like a rewriting of the slow introduction. The ending of the movement is abrupt, a bit of a surprise. The mood of this entire twenty minute movement is one of uneasiness. (It reminds me at times of similar passages in the fourth symphonies of both Vaughan Williams and Sibelius). The second movement, an Andante, begins with vaguely musing low strings which evolve into a gently serene main melody. There is an agitato middle section before the lyrical theme returns to end the movement. The third movement, Lento - Allegro - Presto molto agitato, opens similarly to the second (a whole tone lower) but quickly becomes a danse macabre that prominently features xylophone and sarcastic Mahlerian brass. There is some similarity of mood to the two Nachtmusik movements of Mahler's Seventh Symphony with a dollop of malice. (One is reminded of the similar movement in Walton's First Symphony.) The finale, Allegro con brio, almost as long as the first movement, is altogether more lyrical and rhapsodic than anything preceding it. This movement, too, is a sonata-allegro and the working out of the development is particularly effective. The recapitulation reprises the majestic opening theme and the symphony ends on what could be considered a positive note. One wonders if there is an unstated program to this symphony. It is easy to imagine Alfvén was guided by some sort of narrative thread.
The disc ends with the brief -- three minutes -- Andante religioso which is Alvén's re-orchestration for harp, celesta and strings of an intermezzo from his 1913 'Revelation Cantata'. It is beautiful, but one has to feel it is anticlimactic after the turbulence and power of the symphony.
One cannot say enough positive about the performance of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. This provincial Swedish orchestra plays with real fervor and skill; they clearly feel this music deeply. Much of the credit must go to Niklas Willén, a fortyish Swedish conductor whose recordings, including this one, are impressive indeed. The atmospheric painting on the cover of the CD's booklet captures the mood of the symphony and one notes with surprise that it was painted by August Strindberg!
I have no problem giving this CD a vigorous thumbs-up. For those of you who know only Alfvén's 'Swedish Rhapsody', this symphony will come as a revelation.