Carl Nielsen Symfonier: 5 og 6
14 February 2015
The Arts Desk
Graham RicksonNielsen told the press that his sixth and final symphony was “in a lighter vein than my other symphonies – there are cheerful things in it.”
There are cheerful things in the other five too; the blazing positivity of this composer's music is its most endearing characteristic. No. 5 closes with an incandescent major chord, while No. 6 bids farewell with a farting bassoon pedal that would have pleased Haydn. This is a strange, occasionally baffling symphony, more capricious and wayward than its predecessors. The first movement opens in bucolic mood, later swinging between radiant clarity and harsh, spiteful dissonance. We're continually wrong-footed. There's no epic sweep, and the textures are frequently skeletal. It's never less than gripping though, and the quiet, resigned coda has unbearable poignancy. It's followed by a string-free "Humoresque" which still sounds modern, full of leering trombone slides and drum rolls. There's a bleak, solemn "Proposta seria" before the Finale's variations on a slippery bassoon theme. Amongst all the craziness there's the sense that Nielsen is writing purely for himself, testing the limits and seeing just what he could get away with. A lilting waltz gets squashed by trombones, and the strings' final flourish is overtaken by oompah brass writing. It's fiendishly difficult to bring off, and Alan Gilbert's reading is sensationally played by the New York Philharmonic, if lacking the last degree of fantasy. There's a indispensable 1960s recording of Nielsen's Fifth made by Bernstein with this orchestra. But buy this new live version too.
Gilbert's weighty, serious approach is effective. The extended static passages are unusually ominous, brass and percussion letting rip to deafening effect. The improvised side drum solo is terrifying. The first movement's pale, exhausted close is wonderful, preceding a second movement where Gilbert's well-chosen tempo allows his players to articulate the notes. The symphony's dizzying ending rightly astonishes, Nielsen avoiding the expected peroration with an abrupt, ecstatic screeching of brakes. Sensational music, superbly played, and a fitting conclusion to an impressive new Nielsen cycle.