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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No.1 in G minor Op.7
Violin Concerto Op.33
Henrik Hannisdal (violin)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra
Ari Rasilainen, conductor (Symphony)
Terje Mikkelsen, conductor (Violin Concerto)
Recorded at NRK Broadcasting Hall, Oslo in June and October 1996
TELDEC APEX 0927 40622 2 [71.14]
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The timing of writing one’s first symphony has been crucial in the lives of many a composer, and generally those who left it as late as possible have fared better with their first essay in the genre; at least as a rule of thumb they have often reached their so-called mature style by the time they write it. Nor is it only a matter of age. Brahms, Mahler and Sibelius come to mind as examples of their first and last symphonies not being a million miles apart; Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner where they certainly are not. Charles Ives, Schoenberg, Webern and Stravinsky all have early works stylistically a vast distance from what they then wrote immediately thereafter, and Carl Nielsen is a bit like them. His first symphony is very Brahmsian. He even took the opportunity to show it to the master when in Vienna in the mid-1890s and received a very encouraging response. Nielsen was 27 when his symphony appeared, no longer a student but an experienced orchestral player, significantly under the composer/conductor Johan Svendsen, whose two symphonies have also just appeared on the Teldec Apex label (0927 40621 2) with the same performers (see my current review). The Norwegian Svendsen was in Copenhagen at the time in charge of the Royal Chapel Orchestra, and it was he who conducted the premiere of the first symphony in March 1894 with its composer playing among the second violins.

By the time he came to write his Violin Concerto in 1911, his style had considerably matured (it was at the time of the third of his six symphonies). His place in Danish music had been established by now, much as Grieg’s had been in Norway and Sibelius’s in Finland, but his reputation was also beginning to spread abroad. Nielsen wrote three concertos, the others being one for the flute in 1926 and for the clarinet in 1928. Nielsen’s indebtedness to Grieg, who had just died in 1907, was underlined when he visited Nina Grieg, the composer’s widow at Troldhaugen in Bergen and began writing the violin concerto in the cabin where her husband produced his music. It was first played by Peder Möller but later taken up by the Hungarian Emil Telmányi, whose greater reputation did much for the work. Nielsen was less taken with producing a note-spinning work of virtuosity, ‘I am not terribly interested in vacuous scale passages’, nor a highly dramatic one as Sibelius had done (both men were players of the instrument), but rather one of a more laid-back, pastoral character.

Ari Rasilainen, conducting the Norwegian Radio Orchestra gives the symphony not only a good sense of pace but also draws out the kaleidoscopic moods of the first movement, to which Nielsen gives the curious tempo indication Allegro orgoglioso, not as one might at first sight assume to be an ‘orgiastic Allegro’ but a ‘proud’ one. Actually it is the second movement Andante which seems to be more inclined to such a mood with its dignified beauty, especially in the finely taken horn solo after the climax. The third movement is gentler than an expected scherzo (he could have learned a thing or two from Svendsen in this regard), while the finale has plenty of dramatic fire which Rasilainen exploits fully from his responsive orchestra.

The Violin Concerto shows just how much Nielsen’s harmonic language had advanced in the twenty years separating it from the first symphony, the opening slow Prelude is hardly recognisable as the same composer. Henrik Hannisdal’s playing is sweet-toned especially in the higher positions on the E string, bringing a Bruch like quality to the music, and in the more virtuosic passages rather surprisingly evokes Mediterranean tone colours. Just before the Allegro cavalleresco breaks out (another quirky tempo indication meaning ‘knightly’ or ‘noble’), there is a repetitive motif rhythmically reminiscent of Elgar’s Enigma theme - now there’s a thought. Hannisdal always plays within himself, but there are some moments of suspect intonation in the tricky cadenza. He’s at his best in the charming finale.

Christopher Fifield


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