The complete symphonies of Carl Nielsen: a Retro Diary

Look everyone, it's Greg Kinnear with better and hair! And compositional technique!

I’m just sayin’ that if Greg Kinnear and William H. Macy could have a baby in Denmark in the 1860’s…

UPDATE: Here is the link to Dave’s thoughts on the Nielsen Extravaganza.

Last night the great Dave McIntire and I met to listen to the symphonies of the Greatest Dane, Carl Nielsen, eat fine foods, and consume alcoholic beverages of the highest quality. Are we nerds? Perhaps. Do we have excellent taste in food, beverage, and music? Fucking right. What follows is my thoughts on the proceedings as they were happening. As soon as he is ready, I’ll put a link to Dave’s take on the evening, but for now here’s a link to his blog so you can get a taste of the man’s writing, which is somewhere between 10 and 50 times better than what you’ll read here. As with the Sibelius symphonies live blog, we tried to use different conductors, orchestras, formats, etc. Did we succeed? Is there such a thing as success in this endeavor? I would argue that there is, and the success is that we listened to a shitload of Carl Nielsen music. Let’s go to the recap!

Read on…

6:36 pm
Symphony no. 1
Michael Schownwandt/Danish National Symphony Orchestra

Let the record show that I am a) sitting here with my good friend Dave McIntire and b) eating antipasti. I’ve never heard of Michael Schownwandt, but he’s a handsome cat, and if this first movement is any indication I’m a fan of his conducting – straight ahead, no bullshit, clear and concise, the way God intended. I’m not sure if there’s a cooler music marking than orgoglioso. According to history, Nielsen played in the second violin section of the orchestra at the premiere of the First, which had to have been weird as shit for his colleagues, right? I keep thinking about orgoglioso, which roughly translates to “haughty” and it’s impossible for there to be a better description of this opening movement. Really digging this low brass section quite a bit, and I’m officially on board the Schownwandt bandwagon – Dave tells me he does almost exclusively Danish repertoire, which means I need to listen to more Danish repertoire. Amazing ending to the movement, perfectly executed tempi and great sound from the band!

This second movement is so pretty – it glides along so smoothly. This oboist has not only a superb tone, but also a terrific mustache. That’s a brutally difficult line for the horns to both play halfway decent and actually sound good, but they tore it up. Why do people write shit like that? It’s so hard! Oh right, because it’s balls awesome, too. My bad. I literally just now noticed the sweet pipe organ back there. I’m fairly certain that this music would put me into a peaceful dream state if I played it on loop and mixed it with gentle rain sounds.

This scherzo is kinda inhabiting the same sound world as the second movement, which I think is pretty sweet. The tuttis in this movement have the same weight as a Tschaikovsky scherzo without the mind-numbing bludgeoning that occasionally comes with it. Gorgeous trombone writing, and the transition into the trumpet was seamless and terrific, just like Mahler would have wanted had he been Danish, younger, and not actually Mahler. Nielsen’s writing for the woodwinds is really subtle, but it’s really spectacular, especially when you get to hear them on their own like this. Yeesh, what an odd transition back to the movement proper – I think Carl owes that bassoonist an apology from the grave.

This movement takes a lot of work to sustain the energy, but it sounds like they’re up for it. The main theme is actually a bit trivial, the kind of thing you’d expect from a 27-year-old dude (I was a bellman when I was 27, so I’m going to shut up now), but his treatment of said theme is so unique and interesting that it more than makes up for whatever simplicity exists in the theme itself. Great sound from the trumpets. Schownwandt, who I now officially like tremendously, is pacing this perfectly. EXTREME OBOE CLOSEUP! What an ending, man. It’s criminal just how polished and organized this piece is for being the work of a young man.

7:43 pm
Symphony no. 2
Morton Gould/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

OH JESUS THIS CD IS WAY LOUDER THAN THE DVD TURN IT DOWN HOLY SHIT! Morton Gould, man. Until the moment that I looked at the liner notes, I had no idea what Four Temperaments this music was referring to, but it’s a good story involving serious art, laughter at that serious art, and deathbeds. This band sounds fucking great – for all the luster and lore of the Reiner and Solti days in Chicago, the period in between was when they were at their apex. Seriously, they sound absurdly good. I don’t know if there’s a more exciting 8 ½ minutes in music than this opening movement. I feel like I need to do breathing exercises now that it’s over.

What a charming feel, not unlike the corresponding movement of the first symphony. This Unibroue by way of Trader Joe’s Ale on Lees is delicious. Surprisingly, I don’t have much to say – this is just a pleasant four minutes that I’m enjoying.

Timpani…no one uses them quite like Nielsen (spoiler alert: wait ‘til the 4th). This movement is incredibly dramatic, filled with a real sense of unease and tension. All the rollicking eighth notes, which in previous movements had a sort of calming flow to them, now sound like something that’s going to crawl out from under the bed and murder everyone in their sleep. Yeah brass. Seriously, this music is unrelenting in its intensity, and now the trombones are fully involved with the melodic line at fortissimo. I can’t believe how peaceful this sounds now, after all this…wait, it’s gone thanks to Nielsen allowing the horns to be indecisive as to whether or not we’re in major or minor. Fuck this movement is good.

Little bit of a circus vibe going in this finale. Nielsen, Denmark’s greatest composer, reminds me of Alfven, Sweden’s greatest composer, and vice versa, never more so than in this movement. This thing is really flying along, and it’s damn near impossible to keep up with the online score. If I were conducting this, I think I would just say “I’ll be in one, see you at the rallentando.” TOTALLY saw this adagio molto section coming. Seriously, where the hell did this come from? Ending with a march…terrific idea. This is blazing hot. Holy shit I love the Chicago Symphony circa the late ‘60’s.

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

Interested in Horenstein’s take here – he’s a really hit-or-miss conductor in my estimation, more hit than miss in my experience. Great tempo on this movement, about as perfect as it could be. The band sounds a bit rough in spots, but not nearly as bad as some Horenstein recordings. On the other hand, he’s getting some really impressive playing from the woodwinds, who sound like a million bucks. Great intensity on the climax here, a real spacious feel considering the circumstances. Nice finish to the movement, even if it was a tiny bit sloppy.

This movement is beautiful, a real serene time. The woodwinds are again dominating in the “who sounds best?” category, playing with tremendous variety of color and shape. This string line is pretty weird, but not entirely in a bad way. Just a heads up for those of you who think Nielsen gives a shit: Nielsen don’t give a shit, and if you want proof, look no further than the appearance of the baritone and soprano (which can be substituted for by a trombone and clarinet in voices are unavailable according to the score), which is a huge red flag that says “I’m Carl Nielsen and I’m straight loco.” Whatever, though….this music is so pleasing, regardless of how odd it may be.

I’m certainly digging the little whirling dervish lick that permeates this allegretto, and once again the woodwinds are killing it. Nielsen seems to have a thing for being undecided on what to do with thirds, constantly wandering between major and minor seemingly on a whim. It reminds me a bit of Prokofiev, only it’s always more sinister than when Prokofiev does it. Speaking of, this ending is a clinic in how to be off-putting and a bit creepy, largely due to the thirds alternating between major and minor. It’s a completely unexpected way to end, but it’s pretty awesome, and I’ll give Horenstein his props for amplifying the weirdness.

Of course it’s a college graduation song…why wouldn’t it be? In addition to the back-and-forth with the thirds, the other Nielsen trademark is running eighth notes, which seem to have appeared in large swaths of each of the twelve movements we’ve heard to this point. “Hey guys, just in case this wasn’t odd enough for you, I threw in this canon that I’ll just move on from after 30 seconds!” Well that was an abrupt transition, in that there did not appear to be a transition. REBECCA MATTHEWS. TIMOTHY MATTHEWS. ROBERT MAZEROSKI. ELIZABETH MEALEY. Alright, this ceremony got a weird again. And like that, it’s over – another argument between the thirds and it’s time to go. What a champ Nielsen is, man…no bullshit at all. Not an ounce.

10:02 pm
Symphony no. 4
Jean Martinon/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Let me get on record (no pun intended I guess!) as saying that the cover to this album is arguably the coolest one I own. This shit will not be extinguished! Hey, running eighth notes. Add grace notes to the “Nielsen always does this” list. This performance is of the same vintage as the Symphony no. 2 with Morton Gould, and the band sounds equally as awesome – it’s interesting to hear the tangible differences between a world-class outfit like Chicago and a regional group like the previous orchestra, who did a bang up job, but… Enjoyable interplay between the flute and bassoon there, like a kitten playing with a bear. Wow brass, you are good at music. That climax kind of came out of nowhere. HEY-O! I’m not sure I enjoy anyone’s writing for clarinet as much as Nielsen’s, and that includes Kodaly. Pizzicato always makes me think of Leroy Anderson and consequently of cats and typewriters. This bouncy woodwind motive is fucking delightful – it sounds like the kind of thing that you’d hear in a 1940’s movie while the hero, who presumably dances a lot, is walking down the streets of New York City. We’ve somehow wandered into the funhouse mirror version of the slow movement from Shostakovich 11, and I’m not entirely sure how we got here. You wanna know a good indicator that shows just how different Nielsen is? I don’t know if I can remember a single gorgeous oboe solo of any significance – THAT’S how you rebel against the musical establishment. Also by covering your soothing trombone chorale with reedy winds and robust strings. Bud Herseth. And then the rushing strings came and suddenly my ass hurt! Wait, what just happened?

OK, I flipped the LP over. Let the war begin. Bring me your finest timpanist and then grab another guy who knows how to play the timpani and we’ll do this! God damn those horns sound good. This movement is so awesome, dripping with tension but also so ballsy. And seriously, there’s a fucking war between timpanists. This is as close to Strauss as Nielsen is going to allow himself, I imagine, but there’s definitely a slight Alpensinfonie vibe. I feel so important right now, as if I’ve survived a war between timpanists. Grace notes. Triumph!

10:37 pm
Symphony no.5
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic

Formally, this is a bit like the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, with the first “movement” really comprised of the first two. We followed along with the score, and it was certainly an interesting experience. The opening movement has a bit of an outer space feel to it with the oscillating minor third just sort of staying there like an immovable galaxy. Shit starts to get pretty crazy once the snare drum comes in, and there’s a lot of repetition, but wait until the second movement proper shows up. Somehow, in a beautiful adagio non troppo, Nielsen writes an improvised cadenza for the snare drum that is to be played “as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra.” I can’t even begin to describe how fucking insane this is, but suffice it to say this recording takes the cake when it comes to sheer insanity, which is hilarious when coupled with just how supple and superhumanly gorgeous Stanley Drucker sounds on the clarinet solos. I’m so confused right now.

The second part picks up where the first left off in being weird but fascinating. Every time you think Nielsen is going to run out of ways to make you say “wait, what?,” he does something that makes you say “wait, what?” Stanley Drucker continues to dominate this performance with some otherworldly clarinet playing. This andante is very moving and intense, especially when the violins and cello (playing way up in the treble clef) all get to fortissimo. As a horn player, I do not support the slurred octaves that are played throughout the final minute or so of this piece, even though it creates a swarming effect that suits the music perfectly – after everything else that’s been going on it’s downright unfair to ask that from the horns. Shit it sounds cool though. I guess it’s over now…no sentiment, no warning, no extended riff in Eb major, nothing. This is some left field shit right here. And here comes the Sixth. Oh God, the Sixth.

11:32 pm
Symphony no. 6
Thomas Jensen/Danish State Radio Orchestra
Pristine Classics download to flash drive to iTunes via Plex on Roku

This is certainly less bizarre-sounding than the Fifth, in spite of the glockenspiel beginning, but it’s about to get so much loonier. In an unrelated story, we’re drinking Basil Hayden bourbon now, the finest drinking bourbon that exists in the opinion of this man who did spend four years in Kentucky to be fair. Hey, more glockenspiel! I’ve never heard of Thomas Jensen until now, but this recording is phenomenal. I gather from Dave that he has a connection to Nielsen himself, having studied with him and played cello for some performances with the composer, so there’s an authoritative element in play here. Gotta hand it to Pristine Classical – this shit sounds spectacular for 1952. My God, Jensen has this band going in a manic frenzy to end this first movement. Except for the actual ending, which is of course restrained and involves glockenspiel.

Anytime you start a movement with triangle, bassoon, snare drum, and clarinet, you are daring someone to ask you if you’re crazy. This music has the same feel as the “game of pairs” movement from the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra if Bartok had dropped acid. And stolen a glockenspiel. There’s also a L’histoire du soldat vibe, provided the soldier asked the devil for the ability to play the glockenspiel. That was unbelievable music. Whoa.

If my Italian is correct, it appears that Nielsen is “proposing” that this is a “serious adagio,” which is fucking awesome. I don’t actually want there to be narration over the top of this, but if there were, it could only be done by Vincent Price. This is some of the craziest string writing in the repertoire, and it masks the beauty and simplicity of the wind writing, which I’m going to go out on a limb and assume is entirely the point.

Ending a symphony with a theme and variations isn’t necessarily revolutionary on its face, but the variants on this particular theme sure as hell are. I don’t know whether or not Nielsen suffered some kind of head injury late in life, but this music is enough to make me look on Wikipedia to find out. These variations are getting interesting…look the fuck out. It turns out I’m the asshole here, because Nielsen did in fact suffer several heart attacks before and during the composition of the Sixth. It’s amazing how writing five other great symphonies buys you the benefit of the doubt, because had I written this piece in 1925, I’m pretty sure Herbert Hoover would have had me tried and hanged, but in the case of Nielsen we puzzle over it like a Mayan calendar, desperate to unlock its secrets. Glockenspiel. Xylophone. And now there’s a fanfare because of course there is. Alright, we’re building energy with rushing strings and looming brass…here we go. “Sorry guys, I was just fucking with you. Here’s a bassoon note. Peace the fuck out, bitches.”

3 thoughts on “The complete symphonies of Carl Nielsen: a Retro Diary

  1. Wonderful fun. I had a blast doing this. These pieces have been ringing in my ears ever since we did this. And somehow, Nielsen’s music has been a tonic in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy.

  2. Pingback: 50,000 page views and a glimpse into the future | Everything But The Music

  3. Pingback: Shit that makes me cry, Volume 1: Nielsen: Symphony no. 1 | Everything But The Music

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