Carl Nielsen: Symfonier 5 og 6
20 March 2015
Steven A. Kennedy
Alan Gilbert’s Dacapo recording cycle of Carl Nielsen’s symphonies comes to en end with this release. His tenure with the New York Philharmonic is also concluding as he recently announced he would be stepping down. He has moved the orchestra into a new era and this set of recordings will certainly serve as his crowning achievement with the ensemble. Each of the preceding releases managed to be quite impressive. The last two symphonies are less well known and for some may be even harder to get into at first being interesting examples of modern shifts in Nielsen’s own musical language, though still growing out of 19th-Century romanticism.
The Symphony No. 5, Op. 50 was composed with the echoes of the first World War still painfully present. Nielsen intended for this work to perhaps reveal more of man’s cosmic struggle. The piece is cast in two parts. The opening has a somewhat unsettled lyric sensibility of being somewhat pastorale but with tension just below the surface. There is an interesting coupling of ideas in pairs of two, including paired winds. A march-like section than appears propelling the music forward as a drum shatters this opening moment and causes ideas to swirl about. This striving between winds and strings creates an often intensely dramatic music with often modern harmonic inflections. As things calm down gradually, the music opens out into a gorgeous “adagio” with an almost hymn-like quality in the horn and string idea that appears. The battle though does not seem to be quite finished as trumpet heralds and a martial snare seem to vie for attention overwhelming this growing hymn that has been unfolding. The explosive orchestral punch though suggests that peace will win out with a somewhat triumphant surge at the end of this powerful first movement. Some find that the next movement then moves us into an exploration about what the world looks like in light of this previous struggle. The opening of the second movement has a bit more jagged contour to its melodic idea and seems to be looking for a primary harmonic area at first at is spins seemingly out of control. Eventually a fugue enters the texture as Nielsen begins an exploration of polyphonic writing in this new musical language of the 20th Century. However, the fugue itself falls apart and we see that the old ways will not be able to lead us forward. Instead, we attain the light in quite different way, through a gorgeous tranquil string moment, and eventually the main theme from the first movement returns to assure us of our victory. It is truly in these last pages of the symphony where one senses this as a continuation more of the Mahler-ian concepts of struggle and symphonic description.
The premiere of the Fifth Symphony turned out to be a bit of a cause célèbre with most of the audience leaving in disgust before the first movement even finished. The symphony that followed, composed between 1924-25, was equally lambasted as “crazy”. The subtitle “Sinfonia semplice” seems almost a misnomer, but it refers to the more “naïve” thematic ideas and open orchestration of the work that somewhat, but not completely, suggests the Classical poise. The four movements also appear to be a return to this aesthetic and the opening “Tempo Giusto” is quite Neo-Classical, at least as it begins, but then it seems to be deconstructed in front of our ears with odd dissonance and seemingly random pieces of thematic ideas being tossed about. And so, it is not quite the modern “update” one might expect from say Prokofiev’s own first symphony exploring this aesthetic earlier. Sometimes the churning strings seem to come from Sibelius! The unusual bell ideas and beautiful lyrical idea at the end feels completely out of place and it is no doubt this further confused early audiences. Chaos seems to continue in the satirically named (?) “Humoresque” with folk-like influences suggested by clarinet and uninterested trombone. It is a musical anarchy perhaps most akin to the Surrealists and is the most avant-garde music yet in the work. Having traversed two stylistic aesthetics, the symphony then turns to a third with a Neo-Baroque approach and a fugue. The latter not completely outside the parameters of Nielsen’s formal useage, but it too gets deconstructed and yet this is the most intensely personal musical expression in the work. Finally, we come the closing movement which is a theme and variations, perhaps a last look back at the Romantic period. Is it any coincidence that the sinuous bassoon line that opens the movement may be the key to a sense of biting wit and irony that Nielsen reveals here for those who may have not quite “gotten it” yet? Here waltzes and other thematic treatments seem to veer crazily out of control toward unexpected places. The result is, while odd, somehow compelling and mesmerizing. Is it any more a deconstruction of the past the way Ravel’s La Valse is? A fanfare followed by an almost hoe-down like string idea is equally grasping at anything that can pull the theme back into reality. Well, the bassoon gets the last razz - a sort of musical “up yours” if you will. Indeed the sixth symphony is of the same general milieu of early artistic deconstructionists and some consider it the first “post-modern” symphony. The symphony will take some multiple listening to really get at the hard kernel that it is to crack, but it stands now as a fascinating piece of its time with far-reaching influences into the 20th Century. Shostakovich’s sardonic style is certainly not far off!
As with the previous releases, these are taken from concert performances. The present symphonies were thus recorded last October (2014) and the audience is completely unobtrusive (did they leave too!). Significantly, it was Bernstein’s own performance with the NY Phiharmonic that finally gave the fifth symphony its due back in 1962. That remains a classic of the recorded repertoire but again, Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic make a fabulous and powerful case for this work in this new release.