Carl Nielsen: Symfonier 5 og 6
23 March 2015
Ever since my first hearing of the 1922 Nielsen Fifth Symphony under Jascha Horenstein, I have found its contentious, confrontational syntax as explosive as it remains perplexing. It might be germane to attach the composer’s biography to the tensions in this music – much as we do in regard to Mahler – his heart problems, psychological depression, and psychic disorientation. Rather in honor of the composer’s one hundred fiftieth anniversary, Alan Gilbert (rec. 1-3 October 2014) pairs this startling, even obsessive work with the equally elusive Symphony No. 6 (1925), a combination of classical chastity and improvisational audacity. The sheer abruptness of the latter symphony’s conclusion leaves us with the ‘existential’ gasp that we have encountered a sound and fury that may well have signified Nothing.
In the first of the six movements, the orchestral patina shines from the outset, with the violas alternating C and A, while later the tympani and low strings will vacillate between F and D. The spirit of the music remains hard to define, despite its marking Tempo giusto. The snare drum and triangle intrude, undergirded by the kettledrum, so we assume life has become a battleground. Later, Nielsen asks the timpanist to “disturb the music at any price.” The ensuing Adagio brings temporary spiritual solace, with the New York Philharmonic winds, horns, and strings evanescent in their gradual molding of a paean to Nature.
The snare invades the sacred space, and we seem caught between the assaults in the 1812 Overture and the acerbic critics from Ein Heldenleben, but the musical sequence appears aleatory. Gilbert milks the Manichean struggle as it moves to a wild polyphony in modal harmonies – gorgeously captured in concert by Recording Producer and Sound Engineer Preben Iwan – a seeming confirmation of the severe criticisms first launched against this music as “impure trench music.” The light-footed Presto proffers a fugue, diaphanous and diabolical. Tympani and clarinet conspire to add more dizzy mania that collapses into an illumined, first-movement opening theme, pianissimo. The gentling down of formerly hostile forces plays as if Nielsen were the Danish Faure. The luminous quality of the New York Philharmonic strings and brass enjoys a vivacity I have not relished so thoroughly since the Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein days of committed leadership.
The transparency of orchestral effect in the so-called “Simple Symphony” of 1925 conceals – only to reveal – a host of musical ironies that suffuse this mercurial score. Nielsen’s brandishes polyphony like a razor, often slicing away the very motivic components he had fashioned for long periods. If the first movement elicits a silver and sylvan aura in rhythms reminiscent of Bartok and Shostakovich, the following Humoresque: Allegretto projects winds and percussion alone, music extreme and rife with gallows humor, in the (sliding) manner of Kurt Weill. Nielsen’s last symphony, now embracing a Baroque fugal subject (Proposta seria), vainly tries to combat a sense of spiritual entropy. A bassoon solo (Judith LeClair) announces another attempt to impose form on a chaotic world, now in the form of a theme and variations that absorbs more frenetic, fugal elements. Intensely layered (which the hi-res surround helps to hear somewhat), the music achieves a weird density that dissolves into a waltz worthy of the Danse macabre. The drunken fanfares that follow and lead to the conclusion might have been penned by an inebriated Charles Ives.