Monday, October 12, 2015

Kindling the 'Inextinguishable'

From time to time, I need to work my way through a preoccupation with a piece of music before reviewing a performance of it. To be fair to the performers, I should curb unreasonably high expectations – or at least state those expectations up front.

If, in the process, I can introduce the piece to listeners who don’t know it, or better acquaint those who do, all the better.

This is one of those times.

The music is the Symphony No. 4 (“Inextinguishable”) of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, which the Richmond Symphony will play on Oct. 16 in the debut of its new Casual Fridays series of talks followed by performances, and on Oct. 17 in the next program of the orchestra’s Masterworks series.

I rate the Nielsen Fourth as the greatest symphony composed in the past 100 years. That’s a minority view – although the minority is not as minuscule as you might imagine.

If not the greatest modern symphony, Nielsen 4 is certainly one of the noblest in sentiment – its motto: “Music is like life, and like life, inextinguishable” – and one of the most explosive in content, punctuated by outbursts from the brass and wailing passages from woodwinds and strings, culminating in a duel between two sets of timpani that sounds alarmingly like an artillery barrage.

Nielsen was “deeply moved by the vast spectacle of life in all its forms, its incessant fight for existence, and, above all, its unmistakably purposive evolution: he was impressed, too, but its extraordinary capacity for surviving, in some form, almost any catastrophe,” Robert Simpson writes in “Carl Nielsen: Symphonist.”

While Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony is supremely uneasy listening, it is supremely uplifting at the end, when a yearning chorale that has struggled throughout the piece to make itself heard finally prevails. This triumphantly soulful climax has few parallels in the symphonic canon.

The “Inextinguishable” was composed in 1914-16, the years of the bloodiest battles of World War I. Denmark was neutral, and Nielsen was nowhere near the front lines; but no composer from the warring countries came as close to distilling into a piece of music the crushing anxiety, the shock and terror of battle, the dim, sweet memories of times before the horror, the desperate clinging to hope, experienced by combatants and civilians during this murderous, seemingly endless conflict.

Others, notably Dimtri Shostakovich, would mine this dark vein during and after the Second World War. In the First, however, Nielsen and his Fourth Symphony stood alone.

* * * 

As I write this, I’m listening to a concert performance of the Nielsen Fourth by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jean Martinon conducting, broadcast in 1966, shortly before they made their still-unsurpassed RCA Victor recording of the work. You can hear the broadcast on YouTube:

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:
Part 4:

Grainy, blowsy monaural sound, patches of radio static, precarious instrumental balances and occasionally rough-and-ready playing notwithstanding, this live performance is even more potent than the subsequent recording.

Martinon’s is one of the three most compelling Nielsen Fourths in my listening experience. The others are a 1960s recording by Igor Markevitch, conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra, reissued on CD by Klassichaus Restorations – – and the still-vivid memory of a 1971 concert performance by Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, Antal Doráti conducting, in the then-new Kennedy Center.

Martinon, Markevitch and Doráti were orchestral composers as well as conductors, and that may figure in their success as interpreters of the Nielsen Fourth. To negotiate the complexities of this music and get to its expressive heart, it must help to have labored in the weeds of composition yourself.

It may bode well for the forthcoming Richmond Symphony performances that conductor Steven Smith is also a composer. This will be Smith’s first go at the “Inextinguishable.” Also the first time for the orchestra’s principal timpanist, Jim Jacobson, who will be dueling with Robert Jenkins, and likely the first Nielsen 4 for most of the rest of the orchestra.

The thrill of discovery, plus the tension of playing an unfamiliar and challenging work, can light the fire that needs to burn in this music  the fire you hear blazing in that Chicago broadcast.

* * *

Not all composer-conductors hit the mark, though. Leonard Bernstein, who led the international revival of Nielsen’s music in the 1960s, recorded an “Inextinguishable” with the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical) that is riddled with excesses and eccentricities. A generation later, Esa-Pekka Salonen, one of the most celebrated composers of symphonic music at work today, is only dutifully literal in the Nielsen Fourth that he recorded with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical).

Other prominent conductors have stumbled, even fallen on their faces, in this piece. Herbert von Karajan’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) is harshly martial and soulless; Max Rudolf’s with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (US Decca) and Zubin Mehta’s with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (London/Decca) are inexplicably dull; Yehudi Menuhin’s with the Royal Philharmonic (Virgin Classics) and Simon Rattle’s with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics) are heartfelt but wayward.

Herbert Blomstedt, who twice led recorded cycles of Nielsen’s six symphonies, the second time with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (London/Decca), conducts the Fourth with spirit and virtuosity but, to my ears, without realizing the passionate urgency or the reach for the transcendent that this score cries out for. Osmo Vänskä, with the Royal Scottish Orchestra (Bis), comes closer; Neeme Järvi, with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon), closer still.

The Järvi would be my first choice among digital-era recordings of the “Inextinguishable.”

Among recent recorded Nielsen Fourths, Alan Gilbert’s with the New York Philharmonic (Dacapo) and Sakari Oramo’s with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (Bis) are faultless in execution and spectacular sonically – both are super-audio releases – but expressively underheated. Gustavo Dudamel’s live recording with the Gothenburg Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon) is more fiery, but, à la Bernstein, prone to romanticized outpouring.

Nielsen is not Tchaikovsky.

Nor is he Sibelius.

* * * 

Nielsen is too often paired with Finland’s Jean Sibelius, a fellow Scandinavian and exact contemporary (both born in 1865), in musicians and listeners’ perceptions, despite their music being quite dissimilar in character and style. (One might as wrong-headedly relate George Gershwin to Roy Harris because they were both American composers born in 1898.)

Sibelius, early on, became a national hero of a nation-in-waiting. Finland had been ruled by Sweden, then Russia, only achieving independence at the end of World War I. Ethnic and national aspiration underlies much of Sibelius’ work, especially his tone poems; and even in the more introspective, expressively ambivalent works of his mature years, such as the later symphonies, his music has an accent and cadence as distinctive as the Finnish language.

One can hear influences of earlier music in Sibelius’ works – echoes of Tchaikovsky in the Violin Concerto, for example – but it would be very difficult to name a composer from whom he “inherited” his style. 

In contrast to remote Finland, Denmark had been a European power from medieval times to the end of the 17th century, and still ruled a substantial empire in Nielsen’s lifetime. Its language and culture are related to those of other Northern European countries. Nielsen, like most Danish musicians, worked from a Germanic template in his formative years – Brahms was a key early influence – and a Germanic kind of compositional discipline continued to inform his music.

As Nielsen developed a uniquely personal style, in the Fourth Symphony and other works from the 1910s, it proved as sharply etched in structure and forthright in expression as that of Beethoven.

Interpreters in search of an attitudinal model for Nielsen’s music should look to Beethoven.