Innovative Prom Celebrates Nielsen 150th Anniversary


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  United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Prom 46 – Nielsen, Brahms : Nicolai Znaider (violin), Anna Lucia Richter (soprano), David Danholt  (tenor),  Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Boy and Girl   Choristers of Winchester Cathedral, Danish National Concert Choir, Danish National Symphony Orchestra / Fabio Luisi (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 20.8 2015 (GD)

Nielsen:  Overture ‘Helios’
Three Motets  Op. 55,
Hymnus amoris  Op. 12
Symphony No. 2, Op 16  ‘The Four Temperaments’
Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77

This was surely one of the most interesting and innovative Proms this year. It opened with Nielsen’s wonderfully evocative Helios’ Overture  lasting around 14 minutes. It can almost be seen/heard as a symphonic tone poem. It was composed while the composer was on holiday in Athens in 1903. It begins with a sustained C pedal evoking the the splendour of the rising Aegean sun to great poetic effect, The middle section in  E major unleashes some resplendent blazing brass fanfares, before the Andante tranquillo of the opening returns. Nielsen provided a legend on the score: ‘Silence and darkness – then the sun rises with a joyous song of praise – it wanders its  golden way – and sinks into the sea’. Of course it can be listened to as non programme music in its own terms. Despite a glaring horn fluff in the opening this was a superb performance. This music, of course, is in this orchestra blood, but Luisi had his own interpretive take, with resounding rhythmic inflections. It is a complete mystery to me why this glorious music is not more often played in concert?

This was an all Nielsen Prom as part of the celebrations the great composer’s 150th anniversary, apart from the inclusion of the Brahms Violin Concerto . I would have thought that Nielsen’s little played violin concerto would have been a more fitting option. But I see that it is included in Prom 72, which would mean a duplication of a work. But surely such a repetition would provide an interesting and stimulating comparison of two performances?

As it stood we were offered a fine rendition of the Brahms Concerto .  Znaider produced a consistently beautiful tone. emphasising the more lyrical aspects of the work. However I did miss the lyrical/dynamic contrasts of an Oistrakh or a Milstein – and more recently an absolutely stunning performance from Isabelle Faust. Znaider by contrast, merely offered a most eloquent commentary on the orchestral part although at times it seemed as if the huge acoustic of the Albert Hall was about swallow up his violin tone.  For me the real attraction was the superb contribution of Luisi and the Danish National Orchestra, with some admirable examples of orchestral balance:  the D minor timpani pedal which initiates the first violin entry, with horns in their lowest register; the balance of horns and bassoons at the beautiful codetta of the ‘Adagio’; the meticulously graded dynamics of the timpani figure (usually smudged) of the concertos coda. Although it didn’t quite encompass the enormous range that Klemperer used to bring to the work in terms of structural grasp, it had other admirable qualities which mark out Luisi as one of the top conductors working today. As an encore Znaider played a thoughtful rendition of  J S Bach’s Sarabande from the D minor Partita no. 2 BWV 1004.

Nielsen’s Three Motets come at the  last phase of the composer’s life. Nielsen was greatly interested in early music, ranging from among others, composers like  Palestrina, to Buxtehude and Bach. The texts of the motets all come from the book of Psalms as part of the Vulgate. Although he was moving back in time  he wanted to extend the range vocal polyphony, while retaining the angelical and ‘mystical’ tone. Nielsen chose different combinations of voices for each motet. In the first he used alto two tenors and a bass, in the second the traditional quartet of soprano, alto, tenor and bass and in the third, two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass. In this way the sound grows progressively from the pathos of the first motet to the hymn of thanksgiving in the third. The work was dedicated to Mogens Woldike and the Palestrina Choir. It was Woldike who suggested the work to Nielsen. Older readers may remember the ‘authentic’ sound Woldike achieved in his long deleted recordings of Haydn’s London Symphonies in the fifties, some time before the ‘period’, ‘aurthentic’ movement took off. They still sound splendid to this day! The Danish National Vocal Ensemble sang the motets with great sensitivity, sounding idiomatically both grainy and full throated and delicately ethereal. Luisi conducted them just below the huge Albert Hall organ, shaping each polyphonic strand and contour with consummate musicality and empathy.

The Hymnus  Amoris  received its premiere in 1897 with the composer himself conducting. It was his first major choral composition. Later at a rapturous reception in 1821 in Helsinki he hailed the work his ‘greatest triumph’ . But since then it has rarely been performed outside of Denmark. Indeed, this was its first Prom performance. It is undoubtedly a major choral work. It exudes the sense of vastness compounded by the complex polyphonic choral, orchestral writing, but in fact it is, in structural terms, an amazingly economic work lasting no longer than 25 minutes. The flavour of the text is unremittngly humanist, in the best sense of that term, dealing as it does with love as the unifying force behind each of the four periods of life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age. Although suggestions were made that it should be sung in Danish, Nielsen insisted that it should be sung in Latin.  I can only report that tonight all the choral forces on stage projected a resounding sense of unity. The soprano and tenor sang their parts well, although soprano Anne Lucia Richter shone out particularly in her solo part; ‘Love is my grief’. Throughout the performance Luisi held together the whole structure of the work with amazing coherence and insight.

The idea for the Second Symphony came from a painting Nielsen saw in a pub. It was entitled ‘The Four Temperaments’, these corresponded to the medieval humours (the choleric, the phlegmatic, the melancholic and the sanguine) which together comprise the human personality. Initially he thought the depictions were so bizarre that he burst out laughing. But upon reflection he was convinced they would correspond well to a four movement symphony each movement denoting one of the temperaments. Nielsen was not fond of programme music but here saw as an excellent opportunity to reflect the mood of each temperament through music, deploying different tonal and harmonic registers. Luisi gave a most compelling performance, among the best I have heard,   plunging us into the fierce key of B minor, really observing the angry cross-rhythms in the strings, and the raw sounding energy and dissonances, especially in the brass and woodwinds. The expressive G major second subject had a wonderfully spontaneous affect and the timpani were fittingly disruptive in the brief but truculent coda.  The second ‘phlegmatic’ movement had a beautifully pastoral, even idyllic, feel to it. And the sudden ‘noise’ (from the timpani) for Nielsen, maybe ‘a hunter a bit to close for comfort’, was superbly judged as only a momentary interruption.  The third ‘melancholic’ movement in E flat minor never dragged and the massive climax (somewhere between noble grandeur and terror) was overwhelming. The D major ‘sanguine’ finale was conducted and played with all the exhilarating energy imaginable. In the middle section the return of the sighing motive of the slow ‘melancholy’ movement brings a sharp reminder of man’s vulnerability – reminding me of the brief return of the Marcia funebre in the Promethean finale of Beethoven’s   ‘Eroica’ Symphony. But as with that great symphony this is soon shrugged off, proceeding onwards to a dynamically affirmative close.

As a suitably rousing encore Luisi gave us a vigorous reading of the ‘Dance of the Cockerels’ from Nielsen’s opera Maskarade.

Geoff Diggines


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