Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén's entire international reputation relies on one piece, the Midsommarvaka (or Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, Op. 19), which he composed in 1903. Although Alfvén lived until 1960 and remained prolific until his death, it seems that little else he composed travels well outside of Sweden; his proponents often point to Alfvén's five rather gloomy symphonies or the late ballet The Prodigal Son (1957) as being vehicles through which one can access the greater measure of Alfvén's talents. Alfvén composed music for five films, and this Naxos disc, Alfvén: Synnøve of Solbakken -- A Country Tale combines the suites for two of them in performances by the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under Swedish conductor Niklas Willén.
The film Synnøve Solbakken (1934) was based on the novel of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and, despite having the great actor/director Victor Sjöstrom in the cast, was no more than a weak remake of a resplendent Swedish silent version of this property made in 1919. Although Alfvén's title for the suite En Bygdesaga translates to "A Country Tale," the film from which the music comes was Mans kvinna (Man's Woman, 1945) a dreary tale of forbidden love set in the farmlands of Värend in the 1790s -- it too was not successful. In preparing these film scores, Alfvén borrowed from other music he had written for the ballet Bergakungen ("The Mountain King," Op. 37). The 30 minutes of the Synnøve Solbakken suite play through without leaving much of an impression other than that of a bucolic, pastoral landscape -- it is very low key and sort of like listening to Grieg's "Morning" from Peer Gynt for 30 minutes except that there's no change in volume. En Bygdesaga is definitely a stronger score, though it takes a long time to get off the ground -- it comes alive after the first 10 minutes have elapsed, and from there it is fairly gripping and dramatic music. The Elegy At Emil Sjögren's Funeral, Op. 38, that concludes the album is likewise borrowed from incidental music to a play and was later reused again in the orchestral suite Gustav II Adolf, Op. 49. This elegy is, at points, appropriately mournful and serious, but also rather unfocused in a formal sense and the piece barely seems to have an ending.
Alfvén did have a unique orchestral sound -- it involved strings in high registers harmonizing with certain wind combinations, and it effectively evokes the high, hilly rural countryside of Sweden. The absence of variety over long stretches of rather thinly scored music will try even the most patient ears, and Naxos' distant, rather quiet recording will not help matters much. En Bygdesaga, though, is a standout -- at least the latter two-thirds of it -- and Willén's account of the music overall seems authoritative and disciplined, characteristics that cannot be applied to Alfvén's recordings of his own music.