The Symphonies & Concertos
The Symphonies & Concertos
“Exceptionally well played and balanced” Fanfare
Raised in the Danish countryside as the son of a poor folk musician, Carl Nielsen possessed indomitable courage and infinite curiosity: qualities that helped him develop into one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century and eventually Denmark’s national composer. This box set collects the acclaimed live recording series of Nielsen’s complete symphonies and concertos by the New York Philhamonic, Music Director Alan Gilbert, and soloists Nikolaj Znaider, Robert Langevin, and Anthony McGill.
Strong, beautiful, and independent
by Jens Cornelius
Carl Nielsen comes from “the North,” but that does not mean that his music is chilly. You need pressure on the boilers in his music, which gets straight to the point. “I think it’s really full-blooded, passionate, dramatic, and, ultimately, human music. That’s what I’m going for, and that’s what the Philharmonic is good at,” says Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic. After living in Scandinavia for a number of years Alan GIlbert knows the roots of this music. “Carl Nielsen’s music is based on classic traditions, but it’s just so Danish! Strong, beautiful, and independent,” he says.
So where does this music come from? Throughout his life Carl Nielsen emphasized how important it was that he had been raised in the countryside. He was born on the island of Funen in 1865 in poor circumstances. He was taught to play violin and trumpet by his father and at the age of 14 worked as a regimental musician. Benefactors pooled their resources to send the young man to Copenhagen, where he was admitted to the Academy of Music as a violinist, and in 1889 he won the competition for a permanent position in the Royal Danish Orchestra. In just ten years he had moved from poverty without prospects to the cultural elite of the capital.
In 1905 Nielsen resigned from his orchestral post to concentrate entirely on composing. Over the years he achieved the status as “Denmark’s national composer,” but constantly challenged himself and his audience. The late works complete the picture of an artistic development that was always ahead of the musical scene surrounding Nielsen. To this we must add Nielsen’s profoundly original tonal idiom, at once quirky, straightforward, and visionary, which makes it hard to place his music in the usual stylistic and historical categories. “It’s very difficult to pin Nielsen down,” says Alan Gilbert. “His music can be exciting and fun, but also bleak and aus-tere. He likes to juxtapose highly contrasting images, and sudden switches are characteristic. What’s coming next? I like to read it that he is painting a picture of life.”
Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies and three solo concertos form the core of his orchestral music. Each relates to the classical tradition in its own very personal way. At the same time they show how Nielsen developed and increasingly moved away from the conventions. It is a long way from the robust upstart you encounter in the First Symphony to the atonal experiments in the Sixth Symphony and the Clarinet Concerto. But the common thread is always present – as it also is in the individual works, however surprisingly they unfold. In a comment on the wide span between the introduction to and ending of his Violin Concerto, Nielsen said: “The spirit is pretty much the same.” That is precisely what makes Carl Nielsen such a strong composer: he is always himself, true to his spirit.
Symphony No. 1 (1889–94)
Nielsen skips the conventions from the very first chord in his First Symphony. Here we meet a true strongman who expresses himself in succinct phrases and with powerful gusts of breath. The music is classically formed, but literally “unpolished,” partly because Nielsen did not yet have a fully honed technique, partly because he was trying to get away from the academic standards.
The need to escape also applies to something as fundamental as the relationship between major and minor. With ambivalence elevated to a principle, the symphonic ground plan is ruptured, and the symphony ends in a different key from its beginning! In the last movement the strife between the two forces blazes up, but in the second movement, too, major and minor are on unstable ground. Here the pastoral idyll of the music grows into a truly pagan, na-ture-worshipping revelation of light and landscape.
“A work that seems to promise a coming storm of genius,” wrote a critic, “as strangely in-nocent and unconscious as if one saw a child playing with dynamite.”
Symphony No. 2 “The Four Temperaments” (1901–02)
Carl Nielsen got the idea for the symphony during a visit to a country inn: “On the wall there hung a highly comical picture in which “the temperaments” were shown. The Choleric had a long sword in his hand, with which he fenced wildly in empty air, his hair streaming crazily around his face, which was so distorted by anger and diabolical hatred that I involuntarily burst out laughing. The other three pictures were in the same style, and my friends and I were heartily amused by the pictures’ exaggerated expressions and comical seriousness. But how strangely things may often turn out! One fine day I realized that these shoddy pictures contained a musical undercurrent!”
The four characters correspond to the movements in a symphony. The choleric person is, of course, the energetic introduction, the phlegmatic one is a brief interlude, and the melancholy movement is the dark section of the symphony. In the final movement the sanguine character -gallops out happily along the highway, but forgets in his short-sightedness where he is going.
Symphony No. 3 “Sinfonia espansiva” (1910–11)
The Third Symphony became Carl Nielsen’s breakthrough with audiences and critics alike. The first movement is captivating, in a class by itself, and with irregular lashes it whips the music into motion with so much energy that the movement carries on under its own steam. Nielsen de-cided to let the name of the first movement, Allegro espansivo, apply to the whole symphony. Sinfonia espansiva is an image of development and growth.
In the second movement we find ourselves in a pristine landscape of paradisiac calm. Niel-sen adds the voices of a man and a woman, mixing wordlessly and meditatively with the music. The contrast comes with worries and restlessness in the third movement, before the develop-ment narrative of the symphony lands in the fourth movement, in a tribute to the activities of humanity on the Earth. Irresistibly, a melody makes its way forward as if it were a community song for symphony orchestra. “A hymn to work and the healthy development of everyday life” was Nielsen’s own description of the final movement.
Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable” (1914–16)
The epoch-making Fourth Symphony was written in the midst of World War I, and it is highly tempting to hear the violent music as the sound of war. Carl Nielsen’s own explanation was more abstract: he saw the symphony as an expression of the eternal will to life. “Music is life, and, like it, inextinguishable” is the motto of the symphony.
The first movement begins with a “Big Bang” that casts all its particles out into space with no clear idea of how they will coalesce. A slow, descending theme in the woodwinds seems like a respite, but develops surprisingly into the symphony’s inextinguishable victory motto.
The idyll in the second movement ends in a rupture, and the intense third section of the symphony is a monologue that struggles with deep despair. Out of the darkness a flame then shoots up – played by unison strings. This leads into the climax of the symphony: the last section with the famous duel between two timpanists. The effect is chaotic, until the inextinguishable theme from the first movement wins the victory in some of the most ecstatic music Nielsen ever wrote.
Symphony No. 5 (1922)
Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most visionary of the twentieth century, a cosmic battle between light and darkness. The first part of the symphony is a primal state in which two themes that emerge from the introductory flow in the violas hold each other in check. The balance of tensions is broken by a snare drum whose improvisation attempts to destroy the surroundings. The struggle grows into a ragnarok which ends on the side of light. But the bal-ance between the forces has not changed.
The second part of the symphony wants to create something new. An ambitious theme manically takes up the challenges, but turns out to lack stamina, and a diabolical fugue splits apart rather than builds up. Only then does the main subject of the movement return, this time pianissimo, and in serene polyphony opens up for a magical journey toward the light.
In the 1920s the symphony was performed by famous conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Pierre Monteux. The definitive breakthrough came in 1962, when it was rec-orded by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein.
Symphony No. 6 “Sinfonia semplice” (1924–25)
On its face, the title “Simple Symphony” refers to the work’s naive themes, transparency, and classic division into four movements. But there is a profound irony in the music: it contradicts itself from start to finish. In the first movement a complexity quickly arises that makes the “simplicity” ring false, and the movement culminates in a searing dissonance. In the extreme Humoresque, the instruments are unleashed in anarchy, and the trombone scornfully shoots down the clarinet’s rescue bid. Cut to the neo-Baroque third movement, which painfully tries to create unity with the aid of classical part-writing – in vain, as the last movement sweeps every-thing away with a succession of unruly variations. The final collapse comes in a grotesque waltz in which the chaotic eruptions of the brass make the music cannibalize itself. It is with a harsh and provocative deconstruction that Nielsen ends his series of symphonies: a challenging of his own artistic boundaries and, in particular, of the role as canonized national composer, one that he had no wish to fill.
Violin Concerto (1911–12)
Unconventional it is, yet Nielsen’s Violin Concerto also counts as one of his most typical works. It begins grandiloquently, ends in frivolity, and along the way it closely juxtaposes contrasting characters. The work is formed in two large halves, each of which is divided into a slow and a fast section – an unusual but clear structure.
The first movement begins with a long, ambitious solo cadenza and continues to an ener-getic main section named Allegro cavallerésco, that is to say, chivalrous and proud. The violin emerges as a conqueror who knows his worth. The introduction to the second part is a chro-matic exploration of the borderland between major and minor, beginning with the theme of the oboe over the notes B–A–C–H. This intense section carries on abruptly into a teasing rondo, where the composer’s inner folk fiddler is unleashed. Nielsen, one of the greatest humorists of classical music, described the final movement as “a kind of half-cute, half-cheerful rickety movement, almost without willpower, but good-natured and engaging like a warmly smiling layabout at his best.”
Flute Concerto (1926)
The Flute Concerto is a marvellous example of Carl Nielsen’s late style: restless but precise, with a shrewd humour but a warm heart. Once more the concerto is given a twofold structure, but tightened up considerably. It begins flickeringly, with a slight frisson of hysteria. Marching timpani and a threatening bass trombone make the soloist screech like a bird that has caught sight of a predator. Then the orchestra settles on a theme that at last gives the flute peace of mind. “The flute prefers the pastoral moods; the composer therefore has to adapt to its gentle nature if he will not risk being branded as a barbarian,” Carl Nielsen wrote. The second move-ment tries to put the conflicts behind it, but soon the flute must conform to its nature with a melancholy Adagio theme. How is this to end? In wonderfully bizarre fashion Nielsen lets the swaggering trombone pilot the whole work into harbor with the pastoral theme from the first part. The flute is perplexed at its betrothal with its odd partner, but the point is typical of Carl Nielsen: agreement is not necessarily bliss; fertile contrasts make for brilliance and excitement.
Clarinet Concerto (1928)
Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto is the most important clarinet concerto of the twentieth century – a radical work with atonal tendencies, with an important secondary role for the snare drum, which alternately stirs up and splits apart. The main opponent of the clarinet is, however, its own temperament, and after just a few minutes the lid is blown off the kettle in a choleric cadenza.
The starting point is the lurking initial subject in cellos and basses. The second main subject is poco adagio and exhibits a deep melancholy that becomes more intense each time it ap-pears. It is more painful even than the satanic march passages in the concerto. In the last section the clarinet pulls out a teasing folk-dance-like motif. That lightens things up, but even though the Concerto is rounded off in a kind of spirit of conciliation, it never achieves true serenity. At the first performance in 1928 there were few who could see any future for Nielsen’s most envelope-pushing work hitherto. That delighted Carl Nielsen: “It shows after all that one is not quite sacrosanct yet, that one is still alive and has hope and possibilities for development,” he said, with a smile, in a newspaper comment.