ALFVÉN:  Vid sekelskiftet, Op. 12 (At the Turn of the Century).  Kantat vid Reformationsfesten i Uppsala 1917, Op. 36. (Cantata for the 1917 Reformation Festivities in Uppsala).  Klockorna, Op. 13 (The Bells).
Lena Hoel, soprano; Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, baritone; Royal Philharmonic Choir of Stockholm; G”vle Symphony Orch/Stefan Parkman, cond.

STERLING CDS 1036 (F) (DDD)  TT:  60:00
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Hugo AlfvČn's music is coming  into favor during recent years, reflected by much more  of his music being  recorded.  In earlier years he was known primarily for his Swedish Rhapsody No. 1,"Midsommarvka."  Now  a wide variety of his music has been issued including all four symphonies, ballet music, songs, incidental music and choral pieces.  Solid craftsmanship is evident in all of his music. His love of nature led him to spend much time in the stormy seas of the Stockholm archipelago, which was a major source of inspiration. After the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in 1897 he was considered to be an academic composer but later became more adventuresome.  Many listeners find a sensual quality in his music, particularly the Fourth Symphony.   Alfvén lived life to the fullest; it has been suggested that  one of his many affairs was with a leading singer of the Royal Opera, after she sang the soprano role in the first of the two cantatas recorded on this CD. 

 The AlfvČn catalog is now enriched by two cantatas and a ballad for baritone and orchestra.  In 1899 AlfvČn was asked by the Royal Opera to compose a cantata to mark the turn of the century. This turned out to be  the first of ten cantatas he wrote for official occasions. At the Turn of the Century, Op. 12 (later called the "New Year Cantata,"  with a text by Erik Axel Karlfeldt, was premiered a century ago, January 1, 1900 at the Royal Opera House with Wilhelm Stenhammar conducting (a program that also included Beethoven's Fidelio!) .  Performance time is less than 18 minutes. The longest of the four movements is the "hyper-Romantic" soprano solo, "The worlds' offering," in which the centuries' maidens bring natural treasures of the earth to the Lord.  The solo line goes into coloratura territory with some awkward intervals somewhat reminiscent of  Sibelius's Luonnotar. The chorus sings the other three movements, the first, "Life's Empire," about the earth's bounty, the second, "The passage of the centuries," concerns the travail of life, while the last, "To the new century," is an optimistic look to the future.

The second cantata, Cantata for the 1917 Reformation Festivities in Uppsala, Op. 36, has a text from the 1695 Hymn Book by Nathan S–derblom as well as the poem "Luther's Hammer" by Erik Axel Karlfeldt.   At 32:58 this is almost twice as long as the other cantata, and  was  premiered in Uppsala University (where AlfvČn was Director) in October 1917 with the composer conducting.  The cantata is in two parts  commemorating  Martin Luther's reformation four hundred years earlier,  using  three Luther chorales to mighty effect.  A baritone solo precedes the magnificent final Luther chorale.  AlfvČn often seemed to be plagued by tardiness, either his own or other's.  The CD booklet describes how as this cantata was being premiered parts for the finale were still being copied and were passed on-stage just in the nick of time, to be played without rehearsal.

The CD concludes with The Bells, Op. 13, a poem for baritone and orchestra to a text by Frithiof Holmgren, written in 1900 and premiered that year with Wilhelm Stenhammar conducting.  This one of but two songs AlfvČn wrote  specifically for voice and orchestra.  He found the subject appealing as it gave him an opportunity to depict in the orchestra  various sounds of bells using primarily tam-tam and two pianos.  He does so in a rather gentle way, far removed from the vivid treatment Sergei Rachmaninoff used thirteen years later.

The chorus is superb as one would expect when the conductor is Stefan Parkman.  Parkman has to his credit remarkable recordings on Chandos, in particular works of  Schnittke.  Lena Hoel negotiates the manifold difficulties of her solo adedquately but her sound is not very attractive. Karl-Magnus Fredriksson's baritone solos are superb.  The G”vle Symphony Orchestra is new to me, but first-rate in every way with kudos to their brass for their brilliant performance of  the many  fanfares  in the cantatas.  The sound is  wide-range, well-balanced and there is a fine sense of perspective.  Texts are provided for all works.  If you enjoy music of AlfvČn you must investigate two of his songs (Saa tag mit Hjerte and Jag L”ngtar dig) sung by Jussi Bj–rling (Swedish Society SDC 1010 or 1019).

R.E.B.