Saturday, July 12, 2008

Great Dane

The five symphonies of Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865 - 1931) are hidden treasures of the 20th century orchestral repertoire. There were six actually, but Nielsen's First written in 1892 was more of a trial run. It wasn't until Symphony No. 2 "The Four Temperaments" in 1901 that he found his distinct voice. The dramatic power of these works belie the quiet life led by the composer, who sometimes had his best ideas while sitting in the village pub. Born of a musical family, Nielsen was an accomplished violinist who made his living as a professional musician before finding fame as a composer.

Denmark is Nordic, yet unlike her Scandinavian neighbors is connected to the Continental heartland. I think Nielsen reflects that. He's been compared to Anton Bruckner, and had that great Austrian's ability to make the orchestra sing like a giant pipe organ. But I can also discern some of the austere beauty of his Finnish contemporary Sibelius. In addition, I find that listening to Nielsen stirs up similar emotions as another favorite early-20th century symphonist -- Sir Edward Elgar. There's a melancholy nobility and nostalgia that comes through from both men. Other descriptives that come to mind when listening to Nielsen are vast, colossal, majestic.

Four of his six symphonies carry wonderfully evocative nicknames. Probably the most played and best known is Symphony No. 4, aptly named "The Inextinguishable". Music critic Michael Steinberg explains what Nielsen was going for.

'Inextinguishable' is not an adjective like 'Military', 'Unfinished', 'Scottish' or 'Pathétique'; rather, 'Det uudslukkelige' is a noun. Nielsen meant by it 'the elemental will to life', the force that would cause nature to breed new life even though the world had been the summer of 1914, as Europe was about to do its best to destroy itself, Nielsen laboured at translating his vision into music.

Nielsen's Fourth explodes out of the box with a series of memorable flourishes before giving way to moments of quiet lyricism and a triumphal ending. "Human aspiration and yearning...these forces, which are inextinguishable, are what I have tried to represent," Nielsen said. Listening to it on a decent home stereo can threaten to raise the roof. Nielsen didn't stray far from the European symphonic tradition stretching back to Mozart and Haydn, choosing to work within the confines of sonata form. There are elements of a more modern sensibility, though, especially in the unnamed Symphony No. 5 with it's percussive opening movement. Quoting Steinberg again, "a frightening vision of the invasion of order by disorder." The fact that it was written post-World War I may explain it's disturbing quality, but again, Nielsen ends on a note of triumph.

My experience of these symphonies comes from the cycle recorded in the late 80s by Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony for Decca Records. The Swedish Blomstedt was right at home in this repertoire, and you can't do better performance-wise or sonically than these recordings. Decca, Blomstedt and the SFSO had a fruitful partnership during this period utilizing the superb acoustics of Davies Symphony Hall. I also recommend their hair-raising recording of Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony. Happy listening!

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