Haydn and Nielsen are Good Companions in Järvi’s Philharmonia Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Nielsen:  Samuel Coles (flute), The Philharmonia Orchestra, Paavo Järvi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.11.2015. (GD)

Haydn:  Symphony No. 100 in G, Military
Nielsen:  Flute Concerto
Symphony No. 5, Op. 50


The late musicologist, Nielsen expert and composer Robert Simpson (whose symphonies-despite one recorded cycle-and concertos are shamefully neglected) once noted the similarities between the music of Haydn and Nielsen, both extraordinarily innovative, humane, and gifted with an unaffected humour. So it was a good idea to couple this  Nielsen symphony cycle with a Haydn symphony for every one of the great Danish composer’s symphonies.  Järvi  was very tuned in to ‘period’ style in the Haydn: timpani with hard sticks, prominent trumpets, swift tempi and a minimum of vibrato. Although I think more orchestral clarity would have been achieved with a more sized down string complement than Järvi deployed with four double-basses.  Järvi took the opening Adagio of the Military Symphony (which Tovey compared to a very exquisite and silky creature)  at an exceedingly swift tempo – another nod to ‘period’ style. But, at this tempo, the ominous and harmonically ambiguous tone of the music with a forward moving march rhythm underscored with timpani went for virtually nothing. I remember how dark and ominous this transition sounded with Klemperer with the New Philharmonia in 1965! The main Allegro theme (pre-figured in ‘slow’ introduction) was light and crisp, especially from the violins, wisely in antiphonal mode. From the dominant D Haydn brings forth a catchy tune, the inspiration for Johann Strauss the Elder in his famous Radetzky March. The explosive development and the ‘glittering’ virtuosic coda was delivered with flare and brilliance. But overall I had a feeling of ‘surface’ brilliance, certain blandness. Järvi shaped the main theme of the famous Allegretto quite well. The so called ‘Turkish’ music with triangle, cymbals and bass drum was underplayed. There was little percussive focus from the bass-drum and the  and the triangle was barely audible, as were the timpani. I could hear Sir Thomas Beecham’s voice (in a famous rehearsal recording of the symphony from Paris) advising ‘we will have to see what we can do’ about the limited percussion part! Again it is Klemperer who really makes the most of the percussive parts, with a trenchant, threatening and dark ‘actual’  military percussive tone. Tonight the timpanist only came into his own in the timpani crescendo (after menacing trumpet fanfares) leading to the movements coda. The menuetto was well inflected, as was the finale, with the return of the ‘Military’ percussive paraphernalia making a kind of surprise in the coda. One oddity: just before the last movement development section there is a solo timpani eruption rhythmically based on the opening figure. Tonight the timpanist played this as an unmarked crescendo, thus losing the vital surprise effect. Although there was much to admire here, not least  Järvi’s elegant, precise phrasing, there was overall, as already mentioned, a certain surface blandness.

Nielsen’s Flute Concerto was first performed in Paris in 1926. Like many other Nielsen works, this superbly composed and economic concerto (in two movements) is a study in contrasts, both in the tonal sense and in the sense of instrumental texture and contrast. The First Movement sets the scene with tonal juxtapositions between D minor, E flat, and F major. The divergent tonal scheme is complemented by dialogues (sometimes conflicts) between solo flute and orchestra, sometimes in conversation, and sometimes in opposition. Then an unexpected trombone disruption foregrounding the almost hilarious contrast with the polite, elegant flute, with the myriad rude tones the trombone can project. The flute then initiates a lyrical cantabile theme in E major. An orchestral cadenza leads back the opening theme.  In the opening of the second movement there are more contrasts, this time between Allegretto and Adagio,before settling down into a Tempo di Marcia variation on the opening theme. The bass trombone with the imposition of varying timpani triplets, introduces a final series of playful slides, with a touch of the ‘carnivalesque’. Despite the sometimes conflictual nature of the work (those touches of ‘nastiness’ the composer noted, obviously in a mood of ironic humour) the concerto has a beautiful lyrical, even pastoral quality which is totally life-affirming. I can’t help but think what Nielsen would have produced had he lived longer; more symphonies obviously, but also maybe a trombone concerto, or even a timpani concerto?

Flautist Samuel Coles and Järvi turned in a generally radiant performance, with some impressive wood-wind playing, and the bass trombone player excelled himself. The timpani were mostly good, although I would have welcomed a more sharp inflection in the concluding Marcia section. And occasionally, particularly in the first movement, the was a lack of tautness and coherence. The recording with Toke Lund Christiansen and the Danish National Radio Orchestra under Michael Schonwant is far more cogent and convincing in this respect.

As with Sibelius, but on a different symphonic level, Nielsen, and this symphony in particular, require a real grasp, not just of structural coherence, but of how the music evolves, transforming into different, sometimes remote, tonal contrasts from the beginning of the work where we have a sustained but static pulse in the strings, the woodwinds taking up the main themes. Here an A major and C major are established. But then we are wrenched into a relentless F rhythm on snare- drum over a pounding timpani figure. As this martial sequence subsides, we are taken into a serene but remote tonal landscape, initiated in a confident sounding D. But as this develops, in a huge and measured crescendo, the confident D gives way to a more sinister figuration in the woodwinds, running counter to the broad glow in D. As this reaches a huge climax with resplendent horns intoning the D theme, we are hurled into a sudden sustained and menacing rhythm on snare drum in a tempo faster than that of the orchestra. At this point Nielsen instructs the snare drum player to disrupt the flow of the tutti drive as much as he/she can.  Järvi managed these strange and varied contrasts and progressions quite well. Although at times I didn’t always have the impression of symphonic coherence, the huge climax sounded impressive, but loud, rather than sustained – there was little sense of it developing organically from the previous material.  Tonight’s percussionist made this wild onslaught quite clear although it all came over as a tad tame. I had little sense of the extreme violence and disruptive conflict here, and no rim-shots were applied.   The sanity and triumph of the orchestra rising above the mad drummer, went quite well, but this whole sequence was spoiled for me when the drummer very visibly hopped off back stage to an enclosure level with the orchestra. It must have had very sparse partitioning as the ‘off-stage’ effect was quite lost, sounding almost as if the player had remained in the orchestra. There was no sense of dying away tattoos from the ‘ghostly’ drummer. Things were made even worse here by a very loud cough – the drummer, or someone in the audience?  Surely things would have worked so much better from a position in the upper levels of the hall?

The opening of the second movement Allegro, in the form of a scherzo, with a pounding and incisive three-note timpani figure, was  underplayed in terms of sharp rhythm, here I wanted more force from the timpani in particular This develops into an ominous fugue which at first has a bucolic feel to it, but with a tonal shift to F the fugue, now ferociously hammered out by full orchestra takes on a tone of sustained menace. Here the ‘Walpurgis Nacht is not very far away! After a slow (‘not too slow’) and ascending fugue initially in the strings, the movement’s opening, through a superb tonal shift to the scherzo theme, reappears, now in the resilient major. This initiates the coda heralded by festive octaves on trumpets and horns, which ends in a festive C Although there was some impressive playing here (with one or two trumpet fluffs) the dynamic structure needed more gradation. At times everything seemed to be on the same loud level.

Many commentators have emphasised the optimism of the coda, but even before the final hammered out Cs on crescendo timpani, there is an undertone of menace in the insistent frantic figure on strings in the lower register, intoning a speeded up version of the woodwind trills which darken the huge crescendo, giving way to the disruptive drum part in the first movement. A note of stoic resilience ends the work…which some have seen as the restless energy of the force of life. But this is only achieved through a course which entails a conflict with the forces of death and destruction. Tonight I felt that this hard won victory of the forces of life was only partially achieved for the reasons stated above. It seems strange that an old mono recording in inferior sound from a live 1955 concert in Paris, with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and  the composer’s disciple Erik Tuxen conducting, conveys that hard won symphonic force of life and victory with so much more conviction than anything offered tonight.

Geoff Diggines



Leave a Comment