Endnotes, May 2023


In this edition: Carl Nielsen, an inextinguishable force in music, reviewer Stuart Millson

The surging Nordic seascapes of Denmark – winds from the North and Baltic Seas; the rustle of springtime in the rural realm of Funen; the Danish national spirit (a combination, perhaps, of atavistic Viking yearnings with a modern-era feeling of sovereign contentment), are all to be found in the music of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Often overshadowed by the seven symphonies of Finland’s Jean Sibelius, Nielsen, nevertheless, in his four offerings in that genre, generates a raw, elemental power – as if Shostakovich had marched back in time, with his snare-drums, nerve-shattering timpani and overwhelming, snarling brass, and insinuated himself into the Danish composer’s bloodstream.

In a new recording from Chandos, Edward Gardner conducts the superbly-balanced and recorded Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in a monumental account of the early Great War-era Fourth Symphony (Op. 29), subtitled ‘Det Uudslukkelige’ – The Inextinguishable. There is no preamble: Nielsen, almost maniacally, launches himself into a maelstrom – orchestra and audience suddenly enveloped in a storm, which soon into the first movement confuses us: an uneasy calm, expressed by a sad, folkish tune on woodwind then following. But a recapitulation of the opening is not far away, and the music bursts out again in a noble, affirmative, almost Brucknerian resolution – the proud, ‘inextinguishable’ motif on brass, upheld by glistening, rolling, exultant strings. I use the term Brucknerian, but this interpretation is far from being a late-romantic wallow. Instead, Edward Gardner’s reading is often characterised by nervous, quick, stabbing precision; an approach which generates excitement and which emphasises the 20th-century angst of the score.

The symphony charts a course through many moods, as if clouds are blocking sunlight; as if we are all nervously picking our way through marshy terrain at the edge of vast waters that threaten to inundate the land. Sea-birds seem to come and go; patterns of light form over the land – and then, breaking out and unstoppable, a battle between two sets of timpani, reflecting not just the composer’s love of anarchic, highly-driven passages for orchestra, but the state of Europe and the world in 1916. Like being in a claustrophobic room, or grappling with a pounding headache, the symphony drains the senses; the timpani slog it out as tonality is abandoned. Finally, Nielsen pulls the reins hard together with both hands in a masterful re-orientation of the symphony: the sea of violins swells and the tide breaks – the noble theme returning; the timpani ordering themselves, almost ‘standing to attention’ and marking, in martial precision, the gigantic, overwhelming peroration.

The recording team – Brian Pidgeon, Ralph Couzens of Chandos and Erlend Myrstad of Norwegian Radio (NRK) – seem to have captured their music and orchestra at a moment of sublime oneness, in which everything was right: spirit, collective instinct for this Nordic score, commitment of one of Scandinavia’s first-class and most adventurous orchestras. In the acoustic of the Grieghallen, Bergen, nothing is missed: the microphones sucking in every nuance, but with plenty of ‘force’ and warmth to the overall tone.

Some four years before the Fourth Symphony, the altogether gentler Violin Concerto first saw the light of day: a work permeated by a poetic, sad-in-spirit nostalgia, but which in the conclusion of the first movement sees something of Nielsen’s reputation for searing energy. An understated folk-feel (the effect, a wry smile from the soloist) can be discerned in the closing scenes of a concerto which seems to be almost completely absent from concert programmes today. Perhaps the ever-subtle playing of soloist, James Ehnes, on the new Chandos disc will go some way to convince programme-planners that the 20th-century violin concerto did not just belong to Prokofiev, Shostakovich or Sibelius.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

Nielsen, Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 4, Bergen Philharmonic, Edward Gardner, conductor; James Ehnes, soloist. CHSA 5311

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