ALFVÉN Symphony No 1
Hugo Alfvén regarded his Symphony No 1 (1896) as the first ‘written in the Swedish language’. As vague a concept as that is to grapple with, I would question it on the evidence of the first movement’s characteristic two-note diving figure, which extends a tradition for similar descending two-note motifs reflective of spoken Swedish evident from symphonies by Berwald and others. Alfvén’s work has a Nordic sense of raw fortitude, fatalism and hard labour but is otherwise pretty well behaved – establishment Stockholm to Kurt Atterberg’s more real, muddy-booted Gothenburg, you could say.
The symphony is a decent listen. It gets a little tied up in the closing pages of its otherwise clearly argued opening Allegro; the Andante is at its best when it breaks momentarily free from formal symphonic shackles; the Scherzo revels deliciously in that very formality and the finale is a true and impressive culmination that maintains momentum through varied shifts in scenery.
It’s in the latter feature that we hear Alfvén’s early promise as a painter, an experience that peers through the subtlest of his orchestrations and his quasi-visual exploration of timbre and harmony. Filling up here are two works that go the whole hog: proper musical landscapes from which narratives emerge and then recede again, including the Midsommarvaka (‘Midsummer Vigil’) so beloved of Swedes.
It is in these more plain-speaking pieces, rich and occasionally ferocious as captured here, that the DSO and Łukasz Borowicz prove how invaluable it is to have this music recorded by a distinguished central European orchestra, more for philosophical reasons than qualitative ones. There is a patrician quality added to the inbuilt alertness and drive of the symphony’s outer movements in this performance that sets it apart from Neeme Järvi’s finely articulated account with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (which still stands very tall); but beyond that and the newcomer’s slightly faster pace, there’s not an awful lot between the two. Four more symphonies to come, though.