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Review of Nielsen / Mahler Concert on 12 November 2011

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I think it was Robert Simpson, a fine composer in his own right, who once said that there were only two composers, the performances of whose works would compel him to leave his sick bed to hear: one was Joseph Haydn and the other was Carl Nielsen. There is indeed a life-affirming quality to much of what Nielsen composed. His music was rooted in the rich soils of the island of Funen (Fyn) but which nevertheless remains universal in expression, much more than just Danish in dialect. It seems extraordinary now to think that his music did not really gain international currency until 1950 when a performance of his Symphony No.5 at the Edinburgh Festival caused something of a sensation. How wonderful, therefore, that Nielsen’s music has made so much headway, that amateur orchestras should wish to play his music and audiences should wish to hear it.

The concert began with Nielsen’s Helios overture. The piece was written relatively quickly in the spring of 1903 while he was working at the Athens Conservatoire. In its short compass, just a little more than ten minutes, the music describes the sun rising through mountain mists in the east, rising to its fiery, dazzling zenith, only then to sink behind more distant mountains to the east in majestic radiance. The music begins quietly in the basses, no clear daylight yet, to be joined soon by the horn section who gently intone a hymn to the rising sun. It strikes me that horn players are unlikely to thank the composer for asking them to play so quietly with no opportunity to warm their lips beforehand. It is easy to imagine individual players falling like Icarus into the Aegean. In the event the WSO players held the line admirably. With the full orchestra now engaged the trumpets fanfare the arrival of the sun in all its splendour and the music makes its vigorous way through the daylight hours until it returns to the quiet depths of the orchestra from where it was born. I wonder if Sibelius knew this music when he composed the last movement of his Fifth Symphony, only twelve years later. The overture was given a fine performance by all the members of the orchestra, although the brass players deserve particular mention.

The concert continued with a selection of six songs from Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Child’s Magic Horn”) in what was a very effective piece of concert programming. Those members of the audience who had heard the same orchestra play the composer’s Ninth Symphony just a few months before would have been reminded of the huge differences between the music of early and late Mahler. These songs, and they are very tuneful, have huge charm, often with a child-like innocence that Mahler, among only a few composers, was singularly successful in capturing. The two soloists, Hannah Medlam and Simon Gallear, have beautiful voices and were very well accompanied by the orchestra who managed to sound almost Viennese (special bouquets to the woodwind soloists). The songs are quite obviously challenging to sing; for example, the third song in the sequence, “Rheinlegendchen” (“Little Rhine Legend”) will test the vocal technique of any soprano. It is to the particular credit of Hannah Medlam that not only did she manage to overcome the difficulties, she also managed to characterise the songs so well too. I imagine that she will enjoy a distinguished career in the opera house. Simon Gallear was very accurate in his singing too and contrasted well with his vocal partner.

The concert finished with a performance of Carl Nielsen’s Third Symphony, subtitled “Espansiva”. May I first of all say that this was a quite brilliant performance, the best I think, that I have heard the WSO play. Sometimes things just ‘click’; you could tell by the exchanged smiles and approving glances within the orchestra that they too felt that they were achieving something special. The symphony was composed some eight years after Helios. Written in 1911, it is a celebration of life, full of exuberance and optimism (the Italian word, ‘espansiva’, may be translated as ‘outgoing’). It is rather poignant to think that just a few years later Europe would lie broken after the Great War and that Nielsen’s personal life would begin to suffer. The first movement begins with a series of vigorous and accelerating blows, almost as though the composer is clearing his throat before telling us what he wants to express. The movement then takes wing in what appears to be some kind of wild dance, specifically a gigantic waltz in the middle of the movement, which perhaps should remind us of the rude vigour of the hard-working, hard-playing, and perhaps hard-drinking, rural Danes! The second movement is essentially an idyll, beginning on a long pedal note, the music seeming almost to suggest the mystical beginnings of a saga-to-be-told. Woodwinds chirrup away before the strings sing a passionate, yearning, melody only to sink back to a state of recollected tranquillity. Two voices sing a vocalise, most beautifully sung by both Hannah Medlam and Simon Gallear, alone and sometimes together, almost as though they might be symbolic of young lovers, perhaps even Adam and Eve.

The third movement functions as a scherzo without trio and is rather ambiguous; some commentators suggest that it is a representation of the tension between good and evil with neither holding the upper hand as the movement progresses. Perhaps, the real resolution to this movement lies in the last which, according to the composer, is a hymn to joy, a really positive statement of what it is to be human. Nielsen declared it to be a celebration of work and the healthy enjoyment of everyday life, a depiction of the “activity and capability (that) unfolds all around us.” Perhaps this symphony is Nielsen’s testament to his humanistic values. It should come as no surprise that he was so deeply affected by the destruction caused by Great War and that should choose to write his next symphony inspired by life-inextinguishable.

It is always invidious to single out members of the orchestra for particular praise, especially since Nielsen’s music particularly depends on a strong physical pulse if it is to fully convince - and that can only be achieved if the orchestra plays as one - but if I congratulate the woodwinds it is because the character of Nielsen’s, and Mahler’s, music is so dependent on sensitive solos if the full character of the music is to be achieved. I thought they all played marvellously well. However, the real hero of the whole enterprise must be Nicholas Wilks. Nielsen’s music in particular might almost have been composed especially for him. He is something of a force of nature himself and his control over music that is so propulsive was superb. I left the concert thinking that the music could be played in no other way. This was a wonderful concert.

Tim Cawse


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