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Symphony No. 3

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Hugo Alfvén represents the quintessence of the late romantic composer in Sweden. Everything he did, he did with the utmost conviction, in his youth studying the violin, later as a conductor and most obviously as a composer, where his strong belief in melody and consonance reigns. Alfvén might well be the role model for the artist of the time - he was a notorious womaniser (a fact he never tried to hide). He had several affairs with married women before meeting the Danish pastoralist painter P. S. Krøyer's wife Marie on Sicily during the winter of 1901. Alfvén often writes about the dualities of his life; his apparent conservatism mirroring his passionate persona throughout his four-volume autobiography ('Första satsen', 'Tempo Furioso', 'I dur och moll' and 'Final', written 1946 - 1952; I do not believe that these are available in English translation), the latter always in terms of himself being 'intoxicated with sensuousness'. From what we know about his relationship with Marie Krøyer it was love at first sight. Her then husband, who by modern standards (even today) must have been an understanding person, accepted the destiny of his marriage.

Alfvén wrote his third symphony on a visit to Sori in Italy in 1905 with Marie. He writes about this in the second part of his autobiography, 'Tempo Furioso':

    ...Behind the symphony I was about to commence hides no program, this in contrast to the rhapsodies I had just finished... ...The music I wrote in Sori does not portray abstractions, nor reality; it is just a musical utterance addressing the delight I felt in existing, voicing the sun-shimmering happiness that was flowing through me...

    [My translation]

Thus Alfvén's third symphony became his Italian, despite the virtual lack of even a remotely Italian musical connection, Alfvén, true to his roots, shows his profound knowledge of the rural folk music of Sweden, translating it (like in so many of his works) into an idiom of his own. In the booklet of the Naxos CD under consideration here, distinguished Swedish broadcaster and writer Sven Kruckenberg writes that 'the music of Hugo Alfvén has always been close to the Swedish people'. This I believe to be an historical truth - whether it is viable today has to be proven.

In this new recording we find the Swedish conductor Niklas Willén expressing his thoughts on the matter. As with most Naxos CDs this account is not bad at all, even if it lacks an inner touch that would make it great. Throughout Willén chooses tempi that are on the far side of being too slow, turning the symphony into a Korngoldian pastiche. Willén's interpretation, much like Järvi on Bis, emphasises a musical sweetness alien to the inner detail of Alfvén's creation, turning it into a mere pastoral suite, finding a tone poem that Alfvén expressively states does not exist. This I believe is discernible from the first note on.

Compare the first minute of the first movement of the four available recordings by clicking on the links below:


Alfvén          Grevillius          Järvi          Willén


Of these it's only the composer himself in a recording from 1950 that gives the music a briskness that it strives for. To me there is a world of difference in musical thought separating Alfvén's own interpretation (which one must consider a standard of comparison) to that of Willén.

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Copyright © Peter Lundin, July 11th 1999

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