For some, the Fourth Symphony seems the peak of Alfvén's output, the work in which all the things he did well -- luminous colors, glorious melodies -- were enhanced and expanded by harmonies which owed something to Debussy and orchestrations which owed something to Strauss. Another quality that makes the Fourth the greatest of Alfvén's four completed symphonies is its ardent sensualism, its deeply moving combination of love and desire -- in a word, its sexuality.
Not for nothing was this work dubbed the Sinfonie erotica by critics at its Swedish premiere in 1919. To a colossal, Straussian orchestra of quadruple winds, eight horns, two harps, piano, and celesta, Alfvén adds a wordless soprano and tenor. The libidinous meaning of their vocalise is obvious amidst the rising and swelling of the strings, the torrents of the winds, the cascades of harps, the throbbing of the horns, the voluptuous ninth and lubricious thirteenth chords. Words would have been beside the point.
The performance given by Stig Westerberg conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic, with the great Swedish soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom and the great Swedish tenor Gosta Winbergh, is virtually definitive. Together, they weld Alfvén's vitally organic four-movements-in-one symphony into an organic whole which traces the course of a love affair from desire to fulfillment to tragedy and despair. Not only is the Fourth Alfvén's greatest work, it is one of the great orchestral works of the years around 1900.