ALFVEN:  The Prodigal Son.  Symphony No. 2.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Niklas Willen, cond.

NAXOS 8.555072 (B) (DDD) TT: 73:00
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Naxos' commendably ongoing overview of Hugo AlfvÈn's major works conducted by Niklas WillÈn finds the Irish National Symphony replacing the Royal Scottish National, which played the First and Third Symphonies back in 1996. The Second is paired with a 19-minute, seven-movement suite from the composer's last work, a balletic retelling of the Prodigal Son legend in a Swedish rural setting. By 1956 AlfvÈn was already 84, and choreographer Ivo Cramer wanted this to celebrate his 85th birthday. By orchestrating folk melodies and borrowing from earlier works, the elderly composer came up with a lightweight score, sensibly first-placed on this disc.

The symphony is a darker business altogether, despite D major being the root key—begun in 1897 but not completed until 1899 (the same year that Sibelius completed his First), a period of personal travail. What AlfvÈn had planned as a "flood of light and harmony" darkened after the first-movement introduction. The Andante remembers two boating accidents that almost cost him his life but without any Straussian melodrama; it is interior music until a briefly dramatic climax near the end. No light penetrates the Scherzo, a minor-key Allegro that continues disquiet bordering on despair in the Andante (a slow movement as long as the Funeral March in Beethoven's Eroica); not even the Trio dispels the ghosts. The finale, begun at Berlin in 1897 and continued in Paris the next year, is bipartite: a Preludio: Adagio, followed by a fugue based on a chorale that "one sleepless night...suddenly started resonating in my inner ear, with the tone color of the last trump" AlfvÈn described it as a "battle...with Death as a constant companion. [It] ends before a fatal blow has been struck. Nobody has given way."

This is the work of a survivor, obviously, although like Sibelius (seven years his senior) AlfvÈn quit composing before old age, with the exception of the patchwork Prodigal Son. Altogether he wrote five symphonies—the Fourth, which we can hope for soon in this series, is arguably his masterpiece—in addition to Dalacarlian rhapsodies for which he is best known outside of Scandinavia, along with a catalog of other works. What the Second Symphony lacks is a melodic profile proclaiming it straightaway as AlfvÈn's work. It is a creation of noble purpose although perhaps too long—tonal, usually consonant despite the despair, obviously of serious import. The concluding fugue smacks of academicism, in a sense of compromise, although the "battle" is vividly imagined and scored. Symphony No. 2 is welcome if not essential, which the remaining three certainly are.

Whether WillÈn is the natural successor of Stig Westerberg—for a very long time Swedish music's tireless podium proselyte—I'll leave others to argue. The Irish orchestra misses a stylistic identification heard from the Royal Scots in earlier recordings with WillÈn, but plays nonetheless ably, and has been serviceably recorded in its home hall at Dublin. Sound is on the dry side, be advised, but that lets everything in both scores be heard.

R.D.(Oct. 2001)