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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Concert Review: A Very Different Drummer

The New York Philharmonic completes its Nielsen cycle.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert in flight. Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
Carl Nielsen is Denmark’s most famous composer. His six symphonies are only occasionally encountered in the concert hall, odd and occasionally obtuse in their construction. At once too strange for the standard repertory and too conventional for the modernists of the 20th century, these works are beloved in Scandinavia and revered by fearless musicologists, conductors and audience members lucky enough to hear them played live.

For the past three years, it has been the mission of New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert to shine light on Nielsen's catalogue, bringing works with titles like The Inextinguishable (the Fourth Symphony) and the Sinfonia espansiva (the Third) to the ears of the orchestra’s subscribers. This week, Mr. Gilbert led the final series of concerts and recording sessions in The Nielsen Project, a complete cycle of live recordings of the symphonies currently being released by the Da Capo label.

Friday afternoon’s matinee concert was the last performance this week, a program featuring the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, preceded by the ebullient overture to Nielsen’s opera Maskarade. Indeed, that five-minute overture was the right amuse-bouche for the meal that was to follow, full of good humor, bustling energy and the juxtaposition of unlikely musical ideas: all hallmarks of the Nielsen style.

Before the concert, Mr. Gilbert took up the microphone to offer the audience a briefing on the works that were to follow: the unconventionally structured Fifth (two movements depicting a struggle between activity and entropy) and the even stranger Sixth, which showed the composer throwing out the rule book in his last years and creating a symphony held together mostly by wit, will, and whim.

The first movement of the Fifth (marked Tempo giusto—Allegro non troppo by the composer is built from a pair of contrasting ideas. First, a repeated ostinato figure in the woodwinds and strings, contrasted with the march of a solo clarinet figure and a snare drum. The latter’s rat-a-tat-tats interferes and even interrupts the flow of perpetual motion. The second idea is lovely and lyrical, with lush warm strings, lyric phrases for the brass and wind, and again, that damned snare drum, chattering and clanging in what may be the composer’s portrait of the mechanized bloodshed of World War I.

The second movement was much more lively, with the obsessive repetitions giving way to brassy fanfares and flights of lyric fancy in the strings. The orchestra responded enthusiastically to this music, with the brass section coming prominently to the fore to deliver a thunderous final fanfare that shook the floor of Avery Fisher Hall. This was playing of the highest standard in a work that should some day become an orchestral staple.

The Sixth (labeled Sinfonia Semplice by the composer) is a very different beast. Its long opening movement is almost comic in its orchestration. The mood is manic, as if Nielsen wanted to throw in every seed of an idea (including a fugue!) but never waiting for them to burst into full flower. The oddball second movement (Humoreske) pits the woodwinds against triangle and xylophone. Wry woodwind phrases duel with obsessive repetitions by esoteric percussion instruments, a delicate triumvirate that evokes the sistrums played by priests in antique pagan ceremonies.

There is a slow movement, but it is deceptively short, as if Nielsen had written it down and stopped in the middle for something more interesting. That proved to be the magnificent finale, a Theme and Variations tossed happily around the orchestra. The simple main idea bears fruit for every imaginable instrumental combination, from a contrapuntal figure in the low strings to a bumptious argument between timpani and heavy brass. Even the winds-and-chimes trio gets their own variation before the whole builds up to a massive pseudo-climax undercut by the wet snort of a solo bassoon. 

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