Alfven: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Festival Overture; The Mountain King; Uppsala Rhapsody. Niklas Willen, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.553962.

Composer, conductor, and violinist Hugo Alfven (1872-1960) was among Sweden's most-popular classical composers of his day, and this Naxos collection presents a well-rounded picture of the man's work. Most of it sounds like late-Romantic fare, with an emphasis on the programmatic.

The selections begin with the Festival Overture, a somewhat blustery, bombastic piece that, nevertheless, makes a good, rousing curtain raiser. So, it works in the capacity for which the composer doubtless intended it. Maestro Niklas Willen and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra give it their all, and if one doesn't expect something more substantial, it does its job.

The suite that follows, from the ballet The Mountain King, is more temperate, a series of picturesque tone poems based on old Swedish legends. All four sections of the suite are colorful, the two middle parts the most charming. Overall, though, it sounds for the all the world like second-string Grieg. The Uppsala or Swedish Rhapsody that comes next is a cavalcade of familiar Swedish college songs, including a few drinking songs that the college that commissioned the work disapproved of. It bears a superficial resemblance to Brahms's Academic Festival Overture and comes to a stirring conclusion.

Niklas Willen
The real substance of the disc, however, is Alfven's Symphony No. 1, written in 1897 when the composer was only in his mid twenties. It is a serious work, though not somber. The first movement alternates between light and shadow, between playfulness and dead earnestness. It's hard to find a focus in this opening music, yet it seems to sum up the whole piece. The slow, second movement is overtly Romantic, with lush melodies in abundance. The Scherzo is somewhat too exuberant and becomes tiresome and repetitious. But the concluding Allegro is most engaging, weaving a balletic grace in with its weighty intentions, conductor Willen managing the high-wire act with an appropriate balance.

The sound Naxos provides for the Royal Scottish Orchestra is startlingly real, if a bit dark and heavy. In fact, it's rather huge in size, with a thunderously deep bass impact. The stereo spread is wide; the clarity, in spite of some mid-bass heaviness, is impressive; and the depth of field is more than adequate. This is what some people might have called a stereo spectacular in the old days. Today it's more commonplace to find good, dynamic sonics on a disc; but at a medium a price it comes as a pleasant bonus to some unusual music. Overall, the disc makes a release worth considering.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa