Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Nielsen Symphonies: A Live-Blogging Account

A few months ago my good friend Erik Klackner laid in sufficient provisions to sustain him through a listening of all seven Sibelius symphonies in one sitting. It turned out to be a great read, and inspired me to go back and experience a couple of those pieces anew. I liked his spontaneous and irreverent approach, taking on the music in real time, with a more visceral reaction. I've long admired Klackner's musical perceptions and this seemed like a great way to deploy them. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I immediately proposed that we should do the same thing with the Nielsen symphonies as a team, in the same session. Klackner said "ok," and then we simply had to find a mutual time in our schedules to do it. Last Thursday was the day.

We had little to aid us in our enterprise except our wits, a couple of laptops, the scores to all six symphonies, several audio formats, some antipasto, two hearty brews (Chicken Killer barley wine from Santa Fe and Unibroue's Ale on Lees, via Trader Joe's), and some Basil Hayden bourbon for when the going got tough.

We played them in order, pausing between movements to record our observations and get more food. I noticed right away that Klackner types about four times faster than I can. He's also much funnier than me. In the interests of time, you may want to just head to his blog and save yourself some annoyance. Occasional discussion on various points was also part of the process. There's little in the way of deep analytical contemplation. If you're looking for that, try Robert Simpson. We chose our selections somewhat randomly, and Nielsen fans will doubtless rage at our eccentric selections. There are many fine Nielsen recordings that we probably should have considered, but didn't. You'll find nothing from Herbert Blomstedt's able cycle with San Francisco, Karajan's account of the 4th is a favorite with many listeners, and lots of others. Other fine Nielsen interpreters we unaccountably ignored included Theodor Kuchar, Ole Schmidt, Osmo Vanska, and Myung-Whun Chung. (Feel free to vent your rage in our comments section below.) I would have liked to try Ormandy's reading of the 6th, which I was once told is very good, but seems counter-intuitive to me. I recorded my thoughts in a fairly telegraphic manner, though I have expanded/clarified things here and there. Anyway, here we go:

6:36 pm: Symphony no. 1— Michael Schønwandt/Danish National Symphony Orchestra DVD (DaCapo)

1. Very Brahmsian opening. Nice to hear the clarinets w/ their crystal mouthpieces--bright and dark all at once. For a first symphony it's very assured--absolutely solid structure, beautiful pacing. Many of the characteristic Nielsen tropes are already in place. Schønwandt is really good--clean gestures, un-self-indulgent, crisp.

Somewhere in here, Klackner and I ponder whose first symphony is the greatest. Shostakovich 1 is our informal consensus, though we need to spin Nørgård's first together sometime to get Klackner's reaction. But Nielsen's rates pretty high up there. Maybe that will be the premise for a future blogging adventure. How many first symphonies can we listen to before madness sets in and we leap into the icy waters of the Missouri?

2. Lovely, just lovely. (Have I EVER listened to this symphony before? I'm pretty sure but it's been years, if I have.) Gorgeous, and highly exposed horn lines, elegant fragmentary interlocking motives. Nothing here is trying to rock the world to its foundations, but you sense an intense guy ready to take on all comers. Klackner mentioned that N. was playing in the orchestra when this premiered; a strange place to be sitting, no doubt. The second violin parts are going to be scrutinized... This barley wine (Chicken Killer from Santa Fe) pairs very well with Nielsen's rustic temperament.

3. "What an odd, odd... [long pause] It was an interesting mix" (Klackner). Counterpoint. Gorgeous counterpoint, with a very folk-ish sensibility. The direct, unassuming manner of someone from the countryside. Nothing draws attention to itself--the melodies are plainspoken, the climaxes well-shaped but not overdone. Incredibly exposed horn lines--sound so easy, look like nothing at all on the page, but… When hornists have nightmares, these are the passages that chase them across trackless wastes, with dripping razor-like fangs...

4. "It's a doofy main theme, but he handles it so well..." (Klackner) This gets again at the rustic temperament idea. Having grown up amongst Yankee farmers, I think I recognize it. Clean, lean and powerful. RDSO sounds fantastic throughout. N's time in the second violin section seems to have taught him the value of inner voices; it's the counterpoint, a word that I should probably just copy so I can keep pasting it in every other sentence.

N.B to readers: what a fricking steal this set is: (Schønwandt/Dausgaard on DaCapo)

7:43 pm: Symphony no. 2— Morton Gould/Chicago Symphony Orchestra CD (RCA)

1. Good Lord, that's a powerful opening. This is one badass orchestra. An underrated period for Chicago in my book. Everybody pines for the days of Reiner or Solti, but this interregnum shows that a very different story was possible in Chicago, if only Martinon hadn't been run off before he could really settle in with this group. Morton Gould just shot up 400% in my estimation. Been 'way too long since I played this. And N's orchestral confidence apparently ascended about 400% as well. All the same techniques abide, but with more fizz and certainty. Klackner points out that N wrote this the same year as his opera 'Saul & David.' Sheesh.

2. Wow. Melodies that never quite go where you expect them to. How is it that no-one mentions about N in any discussion of great orchestrators? Probably because none of it draws attention to itself.

3. Intense counterpoint, amazing interlocking lines deftly unfurled from section to section, gorgeous doublings, without the "brown gravy" effect. More emotional ambiguity than ever. The brass climax is truly unnerving, and then we land in B-flat major. We don't deserve to, but we do.

4. Pow. Wild ride. N doesn't prolong climaxes. Wham, bam, done.

8:37 pm: Symphony no. 3— Jascha Horenstein/BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra iTunes download via Plex on Roku (BBC Legends)

1. Forthright. Horenstein gets it. The orchestral playing is a bit scrappy, but so enthusiastic it doesn't matter. Klackner and I have somewhat divergent views on Horenstein but seem in alignment on this performance. After his directorship of Dusseldorf Opera (28-33) he never had a full-time residency again. The strings' intonation is a bit dodgy (which I'm more tolerant of than many), but the woodwinds sound fantastic.

2. Gorgeous. When the singers come in, it's such a startling moment, and yet entirely convincing. "Here's just one more way of [N] saying 'I don't give a shit.'" (Klackner on hearing the entrance of the voices.) Nielsen seems on the surface to be staying cautiously inside the symphonic tradition, but underneath the comforting, familiar architecture is a guy who is modernizing the plumbing, putting in brand-new wiring and brilliant light fixtures. Oh, and adding switch-back staircases that don't go where you think they will.

Ever the practical Dane, Nielsen helpfully indicates in the score that the singers may be replaced with a trombone and a clarinet, but it would lose a lot of the character. Has anyone ever recorded it that way? Also notable in the practicality department is Nielsen's restraint int the instrumentation department. No Straussian hyper-orchestra here. Even in the later symphonies, the array expands, but not much compared to other orchestral composers of the time.

3. N likes grace notes almost as much as I do... "Major?Minor? I'lll shift between the two with abandon! Whee!" Good god that is one weird-assed ending...

4. Grand. You could graduate to this opening. PhD, cum laude. And then the oboe enters and you realize that N is the original Dr. Sardonicus. Ah. The rug is pulled away again... "Just when it couldn't get any weirder, here's a small canon..." (Klackner) Nielsen's endings are always so matter-of-fact, unpretentious.They close down the musical argument, but seem to be composed by a guy who would like to grab a beer before the bars close, two if possible. The workaday musician element intrudes.

10:02 pm: Symphony no. 4— Jean Martinon/Chicago Symphony Orchestra LP (RCA)

1. Yeah, so we're listening to two performances by Chicago, and from the same year. Big deal. They kick ass and it's our blog. So there. (You could even get them on the same CD if you wanted to. And you should.) The thing that makes me sad whenever I hear Martinon/Chicago recordings is the contemplation of what legacy we'd have if he had stayed there for ten years or so. He never conducted as good a group again, in my estimation. He completely gets the Nielsen vibe—the ambiguous emotional states, the pacing, the fake-out transitions, the "grand" music that says, "you really think life is fucking GRAND, well, just wait a bit..."

Klackner and I mused a bit on why this guy's music isn't in the center of the repertoire, without really getting anywhere. The command of structure, the orchestration, the ease with line and counterpoint, it's all there. The Nielsen sesquicentennial is coming soon (2015, mark your calendars), and I'll be surprised if there is more than token acknowledgement of the fact. In Denmark Nielsen was on the 100 Kroner note (see above) for years, here Ives had a 32-cent stamp for a few months. Maybe something to do with the national psyche, in the same way that Delius doesn't really connect broadly outside Britain. If you don't have that cultural wiring, you don't really get it.

2. As to why Nielsen matters to me so much, that is another question. I think it's something to do with our common rural upbringings, and a Northern sensibility. No sentimentality, no nostalgia. Nielsen certainly isn't happy with the way the world works, but he also doesn't kid himself that there's some lost "golden age" that he wishes would return. And occasionally there's joy, unalloyed joy. And that matters a lot to me as well.

3. For "poco adagio quasi andante," this opens with quite a punch. [And somewhere in here I simply stopped thinking about anything and listened in wonder. You should probably steer over to Klackner's more clear-eyed account for the details. Something about timpani...]

I would insert here that if there's a classical harbinger of the arrival of Keith Moon, it's to be found in the timpani parts of Nielsen, along with the upcoming side-drum solo in Symphony 5.

10:37 pm: Symphony no.5— Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic CD (CBS/Sony)

1. Wow. I've listened to this performance so many times, and the sheer strangeness of the piece and the over-the-top delivery are such a perfect match it still floors me. Here's where N really gets radical with form, and totally bails on sticking to the four-movement formula. It's really a clarinet concerto in disguise and Stanley Drucker just owns it. His silvery brilliance and Nielsen's lines just merge perfectly. And the slow, meticulous build over acres of time is a major achievement. Study and learn. Then, whoever that side-drum player was was either a stone cold genius or got totally lost and refused to admit it. He completely diverges from the score and just doesn't care. Neither do I. I really have a hard time listening to any other performance after this one.

2. Morton Feldman once told a group of students to beware of the avant-garde because those figures were actually conservatives, despite their fancy theories and spiffy notational allure, that it was often composers whose nature was concealed beneath a familiar surface that were the true innovators. He then whistled a few bars of Sibelius. He could just as easily have used Nielsen 5 to make the same point. This movement is so bizarre and so utterly thrilling. Once again, Nielsen doesn't whang away on the final climax. When you've said what you need to say, you should stop talking.

(Portrait of a man who no longer gives a rat's ass)

11:32 pm: Symphony no. 6— Thomas Jensen/Danish State Radio Orchestra Flash drive to iTunes to Plex on Roku (Pristine Classical)

1. "Sinfonia semplice." Huh. Ain't nuthin' semplice here pal. This whole piece could just be one of the most elaborate musical pranks ever pulled. "Where's it going? Who the hell knows?" Hmmm, here's a delicate passage with glock and flutes. Now here's some bitonality! Biff! Pow! I think you could play this symphony attacca with the 5th and it'd sound absolutely natural, an organic continuation. The motives and figuration are so similar, though this is a MUCH darker piece.

So much of this piece feels like the musings of a guy who is wondering why the hell he ever went into this line of work in the first place. An extended musical middle finger. I was once told that Nielsen declared that anyone who said they wanted to become a composer should be taken to a lonely place and beaten with a cudgel until they changed their mind. I've never verified that, but listening to this piece, I have no doubt that N could have said this. Ah here's the end of the movement. Look a major chord! "See? I am too in a good mood!"

2. Ah, Dr. Sardonicus has returned, and he's brought luggage for an extended visit. If you thought the first movement was weird, you were mistaken.

3. "Proposta seria adagio" is the indication on this movement, which is apparently Italian for "I don't give a flying fuck what happens any more." The thing is, it's Nielsen again writing in a way that would typically suggest a certain result, but the actuality is far different.

4. Oh good, a theme and variations. Nothing strange can happen here, right? I mean, there's that theme to keep everyone in line... Now the strings want to play a nice waltz, but the brass keep kicking them in the nuts. It's clear to me why this doesn't get programmed all that much, just because it would confuse the hell out of audiences. None of your Beethovenian heroism and certainty for this guy. The sense of struggle is there, but that's it. Symphonic audiences bristle when you point out that life is confusing and uncertain and your hopes will probably be smashed with a hammer and thrown into a wood chipper. Though I bet the Irish, Scots and Newfies would get Nielsen. And the Welsh. Which, interestingly, comprises most of my ancestry.

Coda: This was a really interesting exercise for me. I've been dwelling in a much different musical world than this for the last few years, and have really slowed down on my orchestral listening. But Nielsen still speaks to me, and powerfully. That's a wonderful discovery.


Erik K said...

That. Was. Fantastic. Nicely done, sir. I'm already looking forward to the next one!

Anonymous said...

Must be nice to stay up so late listening to Neilsen. Too bad we never did this years ago. (Well, maybe not Nielsen but...)

I put his piano variations on Silent Night on my Xmas comp this year.

So, Dave, your and your friend's next project should be all Haydn symphonies back to back in one sitting.

Happy hohos.

And no, I'm not anonymous. I'm...

R. Iannapollo

david d. mcintire said...

Hey Robert!

great to hear from you. We need to catch up soon. Actually, I think Klackner would totally be up for the Haydn marathon. Just got to find the time in our schedules. And enough provisions...

Email me at mcintirecomposes (at) gmail (dot) com