The Hen is Part of a Proverbial Curate’s Egg

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Nielsen: Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.5.2016. (GD)

Haydn: Symphony No. 83 in G minor, The Hen

Carl Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto; ‘Sinfonia expansiva’

The ‘Hen’ Symphony is the only one in a minor key (G minor ) in Haydn’s Paris set of six. Accordingly Järvi emphasised the drama and urgency of the Sturm und Drang  C minor opening tutti statements. But he also registered well the contrasting and more relaxed second subject in which the dotted figure in the oboe, resembling the jerky back and forth motion of the walking hen; hence, ‘The Hen’  nickname which like all nicknames has stuck with the symphony. Järvi also negotiated the contrasts, from ppp to ff in the song like second movement Andante in E flat major, with consummate skill. The G major comic inflections of the minuet and the spirited finale with its pulsating hunt rhythms so beloved of 18th century audiences sounded suitably fresh, buoyant and full of rhythmic energy. Järvi deployed a large string complement, with 4 double-basses. At times I thought a more reduced string section would have allowed for more clarity, especially in the horns and woodwind. But on the other hand there is plenty of evidence to suggest that audiences of the time wanted as large an orchestra as possible. Järvi wisely deployed antiphonal vlolins, which allowed for a welcome clarity especially in Haydn’s myriad contrapuntal inventions. With an absolute minimum of vibrato, and a sharp edge in horns and woodwind and swiftish tempi throughout, this performance certainly had a ‘period feel’. Järvi observed just the exposition repeats.

It was a good idea to couple Haydn with Nielsen. Although they have little in common in terms of dynamics and tonal structure they both exude a sense of warmth, emotional largesse, humanist optimism and the joy of creation; all things we especially need in our own troubled times. Of course they both recognise the darker side of life, but usually a sense of both triumph in the major rings through. As implied in the Haydn, Nielsen’s music is full of contrasts. but with Nielsen these contrasts transmogrify into conflicts, either in disparate tonalities, or instrumental conflict, most resonant in the Fifth Symphony, where the side drum, or snare drum, threatens to totally disrupt the whole symphonic narrative. Although the Clarinet Concerto contains nothing on this level of conflict its war between the tonalities of F major and E major persists until all hostilities seem to be at an end. But then the side drum incites the combatants to renewed violence and conflict. Nielsen, like Mozart, was fascinated with the tonal range and possibilities of the clarinet. But whereas Mozart focused on the beauty and mellifluous glow of the instrument, Nielsen emphasised its most extreme range of contrasts – at once ‘warm hearted, gentle as balm and screaming as a streetcar on poorly lubricated rails’. Here Nielsen, like Edgar Varèse, seems to be interested in the thresholds between music and ‘noise’! The late Robert Simpson (a Nielsen expert, and impressive symphonist in his own right) has commented on the particular character of the concerto’s first clarinet soloist, who is known to have the most intense mood swings, a certain Aage Oxenvad. Simpson explains how Nielsen, in the concerto, in its sudden shifts and dramatic contrasts, pokes fun at Oxenvad’s constant mood swings. Of course this symptom would now be classified as ‘bi-polar’ disorder; and today this kind of ‘poking fun’ at the player’s expense would probably be seen as politically incorrect, strictly verboten.

Tonight’s clarinet soloist Mark van de Wiel mostly had a complete empathy with the sometimes bizarre nature of this score. On a few occasions I would have welcomed more contrast in his playing especially where the side drum is not playing so loud; there was a sense at times of it being on one dynamic level. But overall he turned in a most idiomatic performance. Throughout Järvi accompanied (if that is the right term?) with both precision and suitable flexibility, choosing just the right sounding tempo for every section of this one-movement concerto. The Philharmonia was on top form, especially in the beautiful balancing of the two horns, and two bassoons. The quiet coda was totally in keeping with Robert Simpson’s, ‘an ending of “calm severity”…with the key of F major ultimately triumphant’.

Robert Simpson has perceptively written that the Espansiva of Nielsen’s Third Symphony is no more expansive than his other symphonies. It rather corresponds to the outward growth of the mind’s scope and the expansion of life that comes from it. It has the overall sense of vibrant human energy and ‘enjoyment of life’, adding that  ‘the title indicates not opulence but exhilaration’. Tonight Järvi turned in a big, bold rendition of this unique symphony, with an emphasis on the brass writing. This initially sounded exciting and convincing, but after a while I had the impression that certain more sotto voce rhythmic inventions, especially in the first movement,  were thus undermined and made less clear. The opening 26 sforzato ‘hammer blows’, as Simpson has termed them, were certainly loud, but they lacked the sharp, incisive impact so stunningly heard in the old 1959 recording (a live performance) with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Jensen, who was a student and friend of the composer. As I implied, on the surface this was an exciting performance, but I don’t think ultimately that Järvi fully understood the ‘narrative’ of this massive and complex first movement. This symphonic narrative unfolds within a the tonal structure, moving from the A major of the opening to D minor, then to A flat, eventually reaching a dialectic of contrast between A major and minor. It was this accumulative power, eventually developing into what Simpson so aptly described as the ‘singing and dancing’ of a ‘gigantic’ symphonic ‘waltz’ – a ‘great tonal swing from pole to pole which, despite every note being played, failed to register tonight.  The second pastoral sounding movement with its ‘full-throated’ melodies and two wordless human voices (a soprano and baritone) quite well balanced at opposite ends of the choir space, went quite well, as did the quasi-scherzo third movement, although I didn’t quite get the  tonal shock contrast of C sharp minor and the remote D major. Apart from a massive, striding, quasi fugal, E major development section, the finale is really a rondo, or a subtly concealed theme-and-variations. Again the movement’s narrative is based on a structure of ‘progressive tonality’. The opening big warm hearted tune (derived from a ‘folk like’ theme) went well, but again, and overall, I had little sense of accumulative tonal power/energy, where the opening theme corresponds with the exultant coda (part of the essence of Nielsen’s symphonic paradigm). When we reached the splendour of the rhythmically charged coda, developing from B flat to A major, and always reminding me of the coda to Brahms’ First Symphony,  I was distinctly under-whelmed, despite much fine and powerful playing.

So, this was something of a proverbial Curate’s egg, or ‘mixed bag’. I later listened to the Jensen recording of the Espansiva, which met all, and more, of Nielsen’s intentions. Also, as a modern recording, there is a wonderful performance from Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Geoff Diggines


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