Podcast Classics for Tuesday 1 April 2014
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Symphony No 5 Op 50
1. Tempo giuso - Adagio
II. Allegro - Presto - Andante poco tranquillo - Allegro
The Danish composer Carl Nielsen was interested in music making from an early age, playing his father’s three quarter-sized violin. Nielsen first made a living as a violinist, often supporting himself by playing violin in the Tivoli Gardens before joining the Royal Orchestra at the age of 24. Remarkably, his first symphony, composed not long after, seems to have sprung almost fully formed with little previous experience writing for an orchestra. Although described in a review as akin to ‘a child playing with dynamite’, the work also speaks to the hallmarks of Nielsen’s style – driving rhythms and harmonic progressions that would push the symphonic form in new directions.
This Fifth Symphony would be the culmination of this work, bringing together all the lessons learnt into a piece that is his greatest exploration of the symphony form. Composed throughout 1921 it was first performed in Copenhagen the following year. This Symphony No 5 Op 50 was in many ways a departure for the composer. Having given his previous symphonies rather majestic titles, it would seem that the composer was at a loss to find an exact word or phrase that could speak to his latest work. As he explained: “my first symphony was nameless too. But then came ‘The Four Temperamets’, ‘Espansiva’, and ‘The Inextinguishable’, actually just different names for the same thing, the only thing that music can express when all is said and done: the resting powers as opposed to the active ones. If I were to find a name for this, my new fifth symphony, it would express something similar.”
The form of the symphony was also a new direction for the composer. His previous symphonies had used a traditional four-movement structure, but this work is instead divided into two sections. ‘The first’, as Nielsen explained, ‘begins slowly and calmly and the second, more active’. Each movement is then further divided into contrasting sections. Another departure from the traditional symphony comes in the harmonic progressions of the symphony. From the music of Bach up until the more modern works of Shostakovich, symphonies would traditionally finish in the same harmonic key with which they began, creating, at least on a subconscious level, a sense of organic completion. Nielsen, and other composers of this time, began to challenge this. He felt that by ending a symphony in a key different from the one in which we began, this creates a sense of progression and forward momentum. Embarking on such a journey, we can never really know in which new direction we might turn and, as such, the symphony is wonderfully dramatic. Nielsen creates an atmosphere filled with conflict, searching rhythms and, finally, brings the work to a final conclusion with a great and satisfying sense of triumph.
Image: Carl Nielsen in 1910 (Wikimedia Commons)
Praised for his intense and dynamic performances, Osmo Vänskä is recognised for compelling interpretations of the standard, contemporary and Nordic repertoires, as well as the close rapport he establishes with the musicians he leads. He is internationally in demand as a guest conductor and has worked with many of the world's leading orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also developed regular relationships with ensembles in the United States and Europe.
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
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Producer: David Houston
Engineer: Graham Kennedy
Programme notes: Frances Moore, edited by Hannah Sassman