NIELSEN: Violin Concerto; Symphony No. 4 – James Ehnes, Violin / Edward Gardner, Bergen Philharmonic – Chandos

by | Jul 30, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

NIELSEN: Violin Concerto Op. 33, FS 61; Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, FS 76 “The Inextinguishable” – James Ehnes, violin/ Bergen Philharmonic/ Edward Gardner – Chandos SACD CHSA5311 (67:51) (6/2/23) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

It was the 1967 recording with Yehudi Menuhin and Mogens Wöldike that first alerted me to the attraction of the 1911 Violin Concerto, Op. 33 of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). An explosion announces the assaults of the Praeludium: Largo of the first movement, establishing a fruity execution from James Ehnes, as the music at first lulls as into melodic complacency in a series of pedal Gs headed to the fifth, D. The movement suddenly erupts once more Allegro cavellerésco, marked by a processional swagger, chivalric and then gentler in sensibility. Gardner takes the theme a bit more marcato than had Wöldike for Menuhin, although the passion of each soloist resonates throughout the individual interpretations. The violin parodies the theme, cavorting with the woodwinds, only to have the full string consort assert their faith in the nobility of the occasion. Repeated notes abound, as does the countermelody in the winds and horns to produce a fine, sonic blend. Ehnes attacks the cadenza’s “fate” motif in multiple stops with a fine, polished frenzy that soon meanders into a hazy musing. The woodwinds and timpani pick up the current, allowing the full theme to explode again, while Ehnes adds ornaments into a quasi-martial and dreamy interlude that indulges the tender aspects of the melody prior to increased tempo that leads to a virtuosic demonstration – originally meant for soloist Emil Telmanyi – and heroically mounted conclusion. 

The slow movement, Poco adagio, has the oboe and horn introducing the violin in a search for a pliable theme in which to elaborate and vary its capabilities. A series of modal episodes extends the sense of plaintive yearning. Tranquillo, the music settles into a motivic lethargy. The music alternates half steps in dotted rhythm. Each attempt at melodic assertion seems to dissolve into a rarified aether. Finally, Ehnes takes the initiative to enter the Rondo: Allegretto scherzando section, a burlesque of a kind, lumbering and boisterous, the spirits optimistic. Ehnes negotiates the leaps in the thematic contour while the winds and horns add distinctive, athletic color. A new theme, Tranquillo, evolves, the marking Semplice to emphasize the hiatus in energy, only temporary. Another cadenza, drone-effected and rasping and mounted in scale patterns, rising to a series of registration shifts and wispy trills. The clumsy dance then resumes, cantering in unsteady heroism, almost drunken in a lyrical and boastful way. At last, A tempo, we proceed to the long-delayed but peremptory conclusion. 

Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (1914-1916) insists on forceful drive and energy, a reaction to the outbreak of WWI. Nielsen dubbed this expansive work “The Inextinguishable” (Det Uudslukkelige), a nod to the unquenchable, elemental will to life. In four movements, the music proceeds attacca subito – joined quickly without breaks – its violent, anguished tutti in D Minor juxtaposed against its flat seventh degree of C, ringing antiphonally in an archaic sound. The D and E tonalities collide early. The full orchestra, nonetheless, has the clarinets introduce an A Major theme, rather lyrical, that will later culminate the work as a whole. Elements of chivalric processional alternate with aspects of the chorale-preludes contrived by an earlier Dane, Dieterich Buxtehude, slow melodies ornamented by quick counterpoints. Nielsen establishes a colossal pedal point that fades into distant chirps and muffled bass tones, almost an anticipation of Shostakovich. The strings buzz and pluck energies that remain ambiguous, even ominous. A new assertiveness arises, Risoluto e giusto, then subsides, only regain momentum, Pesante ma glorioso, moving through woodwind harmonies and then grim convulsions from strings, brass, and timpani. Nielsen achieves an emotional plateau, close in spirit to the kind of summit we hear in kindred spirit Sibelius. The coda, Poco allegretto, is barely discernible, as it segues into the second movement, a G Major woodwind, dance intermezzo. 

With the advent of the poco adagio, quasi andante, the strings initiate the third movement, opening with conductor Gardner’s soft molding of a cantilena from the strings in unison. The timpani add a note of unease while the coloration of the melody assumes a hymnal character. Nielsen will request that the timpani remain “threatening even when they play quietly” once they engage in the final movement. Here, in this interim period, Nielsen asks the winds to play “like an eagle’s riding the wind.” The texture has become contrapuntal, developed intensely and heavily, agitato, erupting in a fiercely thunderous climax before a solo oboe plays over upper string trills, marked ppp. A pregnant pause launches the last movement, rife with the clashes of movement one.

The potent counterpoints of this Allegro parallel throes in Mahler, here with two timpanists antiphonally battling in shifting pitches that include tritones. The polyphony becomes more subdued in tone, only temporarily; the music will erupt yet again, Glorioso, with the timpani’s repeating their fervent, adversarial thrusts. The life-force idea will prevail in all its diversity of forms, kind and belligerent, moving ineluctably to a grand peroration in E Major. The fermata at the coda has, ironically, robbed us of the very breath the music purports to sustain. 

This epic work has proved a real tour de force for Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic, recorded 14-17 June 2022 under the expert supervision of Recording Producer Brian Pidgeon. 

—Gary Lemco

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