Nielsen: Symphony No. 3: “Espansiva”

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen wrote his Symphony No. 3 during the years 1910-1911, at the same time, incidentally, that he was writing the Violin Concerto that I featured on this blog in December 2014.  The premiere of both works took place in Copenhagen on February 28, 1912, with Nielsen conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra.  The subtitle, “Espansiva”, is Nielsen’s own, and is taken from the tempo indication of the first movement, “Allegro espansivo”.  According to the English composer and musicologist, Robert Simpson, the term “espansiva” refers to “the outward growth of the mind’s scope and the expansion of life that comes from it.”

Nielsen himself described this symphony in program notes he wrote for a performance in Stockholm in 1931:

The work is the result of many kinds of forces.  The first movement was meant as a gust of energy and life-affirmation blown out into the wide world, which we human beings would not only like to get to know in its multiplicity of activities, but also to conquer and make our own.  The second movement is the absolute opposite: the purest idyll, and when the human voices are heard at last, it is only to underscore the peaceful mood that one could imagine in Paradise before the Fall of our First Parents, Adam and Eve.  The third movement is a thing that cannot really be described, because both evil and good are manifested without any real settling of the issue.  By contrast, the Finale is perfectly straightforward: a hymn to work and the healthy activity of everyday life.  Not a gushing homage to life, but a certain expansive happiness about being able to participate in the work of life and the day and to see activity and ability manifested on all sides around us.

Significantly, Nielsen goes on to say:

I must be permitted to emphasize that my remarks must in no way be viewed as a program.  The art of music cannot express anything at all conceptual, and [my] remarks… must therefore be conceived as a private matter between the music and myself.

What a wonderful, joyful work this is!  Nielsen’s individuality is immediately apparent – just listen to the dramatic opening chords – as are the grandeur of his conceptions and the exuberance and lyricism of his themes.  Especially moving to me are the wordless solo voices in the second movement.  By the end of the video, you may well want to check the schedule of your local orchestra, just to see if they will be performing this symphony anytime soon.

I have to comment on the brilliant editing in the attached video, which manages to capture the different sections of the orchestra, as well as a succession of soloists, at exactly the right moment.  The many close-ups impart such an intimacy to the video that, by the end of the symphony, I feel like I’m on a first-name basis with the principal oboist.  (Her name, by the way, is Eva Steinaa, and she has almost single-handedly taught me to love the oboe.)  The video also captures the joy of the conductor, Michael Schönwandt, as he leads the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in what is clearly a labor of love for everyone concerned.

The tempo markings of the four movements, and their start times in the video below, are as follows:

I. Allegro espansivo (0:43)
II. Andante pastorale (with Denise Beck, soprano and Lars Møller, baritone) (12:18)
III. Allegretto un poco (22:03)
IV. Finale: Allegro (28:08)

Published in: on August 31, 2016 at 4:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Carl Nielsen: Violin Concerto, Op. 33 Violinist – Baiba Skride

nielsenToday’s post marks the second appearance on this blog of the Danish composer, Carl Nielsen.  The first, in May 2012 (which you can read here), featured his Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 59, in a stunning performance by Heng-Jin Park.  Composed in 1928, that work has a much more modern sound than the violin concerto presented here, which dates from 1911 and is firmly rooted in the 19th century romantic tradition.

As with so many pieces, I was introduced to this concerto by Seattle’s classical music station, KING-FM, in a recording by Adele Anthony.  For me, it was a clear case of love at first hearing, and I knew right away that I wanted to feature it on this blog.

Speaking of KING-FM, I encourage everyone, no matter where in the world you are, to pay at least one visit to the KING-FM website, click on the “Listen” button, and enjoy whatever happens to be playing.  You will hear many of your favorites, and discover much that is new.

The concerto consists of two movements, each of which has two sections.  Their tempo indications, and their start times in the video, are as follows:

1. Praeludium – Largo (0:49); Allegro cavalleresco (7:33)
2. Poco adagio (20:40); Rondo – Allegretto scherzando (27:26)

The following notes were written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic by musicologist Susan Key:

The opening Praeludium begins dramatically, with forceful chords framing extended declamatory passages by the soloist, gradually giving way to a lyrical melody that moves through a lengthy series of shapes, gestures, and moods.  True to its title, this section operates as an introduction to the broad tonal and aesthetic outlines of the entire piece: a wide-ranging journey led by the soloist, a flexible shifting among harmonies, and an approach to form that resists clear structural outlines but that nonetheless manages a sense of cohesiveness.  The effect of this music might best be described as “sculptural” – and not by accident, as an important influence on Nielsen was his wife, sculptress Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, who said of one of her works: “What I wanted to show in my figure is the forward movement, the sense of life, the fact that nothing stands still.”

Crisp accents introduce the second part of the movement, a robust Allegro cavalleresco.  The second movement, an introspective Adagio, begins with woodwind solos before yielding to the expansive explorations of the soloist; its atmosphere suggests the influence of the Norwegian countryside (Nielsen wrote to his wife from Troldhaugen: “In the evening the mountains around here are standing clear with the blue sky as background.”)  The final rondo features a rustic theme; in spite of some difficult passagework, the movement overall eschews the kind of pyrotechnics that often finish off a concerto.  While the composer’s claim that the music “renounces everything that might dazzle or impress” might be taken with a grain of salt, it’s true that the material is more streamlined and that the solo passages (except for a cadenza) are more fully integrated into the orchestral texture, thus achieving a “higher unity” at the end of the musical journey.

The soloist in this performance is the Latvian-born Baiba Skride (pronounced SKREE-deh).  Born in 1981, Ms. Skride was the winner of the 2001 Queen Elisabeth Violin Competition, and has since gone on to international acclaim.  She is joined in this performance by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, led by Nielsen’s countryman, Thomas Søndergård.

Overall, this concerto is a very intimate work, and seems the perfect choice for Ms. Skride, who, rather than playing her violin, seems to play in partnership with it.

Published in: on December 31, 2014 at 1:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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