A bumper review this week – Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi’s complete Nielsen symphonies with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, released to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Listening to these has been a mammoth task, but by no means an arduous one – some of these works were new to me and it’s been a pleasure to make their acquaintance.
Although none of his symphonies lasts much over half an hour, there are still six of them – so I hope you’ll forgive me for picking out a few particular highlights that show both Nielsen’s gift as a composer and Järvi’s as an interpreter.
The relatively little-known First Symphony is in many ways quite Brahmsian, though already shows foretastes of Nielsen’s bold, progressive style. Järvi’s musicians respond sensitively to the soaring tutti phrases of the opening, and his wind principals start as they mean to go on with several flawlessly-executed solo passages – listen out for the striking contrary-motion chromatic scale midway through the first movement! Nielsen at his unpredictable, irrepressibly unorthodox best.
By contrast, the “Four Temperaments” symphony is fairly often performed. Its slow movement (depicting Melancholy) is one of Nielsen’s most beautiful compositions – rising to some terrifically tragic climaxes, and putting the spotlight on the glorious sound of the horn section before the cheerful Sanguine finale restores an upbeat mood.
Nielsen seems to have a particular affinity for waltz-inspired writing – several of his movements lean towards this form, for instance the first movement of the Third Symphony. This opens in chaotic mood, but after several false starts and diversions a stirring (and it must be said, extremely hummable!) waltz manages to emerge – a true Big Tune that sweeps all before it and that the orchestra audibly relish.
Symphonies 4 and 5 form something of a pair – both written under the cloud of war and both featuring fairly overt musical responses to it. The Fourth features a “duel” between two sets of timpani, placed antiphonally on either side of the stage – a truly thunderous combat which, under Järvi’s baton, with the strings shrieking away and even the trumpets struggling to make themselves heard over the din (yes, really!), has a real sense of violence to it.
The Fifth takes this idea even further with a uniquely disruptive, out-of-time cadenza for the snare drum. Towards the end of the second movement, the player is instructed in Nielsen’s own words to play “as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra”. It’s a striking technique, and extremely effective here – the balance of volume between the orchestra and the drummer has to be just right in order for the interruption to be invasive but not overpowering, and it’s a balance Järvi strikes well.
After these warlike works, the final symphony represents a move into the realms of anarchic humour. The bizarre, jumbled second movement for wind and percussion is particularly tricky to bring off, as the writing is quarrelsome and counter-intuitive, with little harmony or indeed melody to latch onto. It’s speculated that this is Nielsen poking fun at the musical community of his time, with various composers and schools stubbornly going their own way; at any rate, it’s certainly a disorientating experience, and it’s a relief when the strings restore some lyrical sanity in the third!
It seems a great injustice to say so little about these fascinating works. I’ve had to gloss over a lot of really glorious music – all six are very much worth listening to, and I can’t think of a better navigator than Paavo Järvi to guide the ear through Nielsen’s changing symphonic languages.