Recording Review: New York Philharmonic Orchestra – Nielsen Symphony No. 5


Nielsen: Symphony No. 5 Op. 50 

April 1962

Manhattan Centre, New York City

Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Brief History:

The Fifth is Nielsen’s second last symphony, and one of the only two symphonies without a title.

Rising from the uncertainty following WWI, this symphony is packed with struggle and anxiety. Nielsen completed the first movement in the spring of 1921, and the second by January of 1922. The work takes on a symphonic structure that is never before seen in Nielsen’s music, a two-movement work with three distinct parts; in fact, this was the only instance Nielsen adopted the structure. He remarked jokingly in an interview that writing the first three movements of the symphony was relatively easy, but by the fourth movement composers regularly ran out of ideas. The piece premiered only 9 days after its completion, and was well received by the public. Although reviews were generally positive towards the first movement, the second movement was regarded as weaker in development.

Recording Review: This is a review of Nielsen Symphony No. 5 Op. 50 Movement I

The symphony started with soft oscillating notes played by the violas, seemingly out of nowhere. The viola section in the recording placed a slight accent every bar, which unintentionally lessened the mysteriousness of the opening. Then the first theme is expressed by the bassoons, starting its own life and growing out from the void of violas. The dynamics here were near perfect, but the bassoons could have been more vicious on the descending scale.

The atmosphere calms again, and a delicate dialogue between the horns and the flutes is heard. I feel the flutes here were slightly too dominant than the music allows; they should be exchanging peacefully with the horns to serve as a contrast for the materials later in the movement.

Next, a two bar roll of the cymbals, signifying the imminent struggle.

From then, the developmental role is passed onto the violins and the basses, still amidst the void of violas. Then, a crescendo run in the woodwinds clears the way for more aggressive bass notes, which in turn lead back to the void now played by the clarinet, with unreleased tension. More dialogue evolved within the winds and strings, but much more pressing this time. Flawless play by the orchestra, stylistically, in this section, seems to have demonstrated what Nielsen likened at the time – each instrument with its own intention.

A background marching pattern played by the snare drum accompanied by rolling cymbals and an alarming triangle gives way to the menacing pizzicati in the bass and shots on the timpani. The strings play what seems to be a dust cloud that the rhythms beat up while the clarinet and flute cruise through chromatic runs like evil gone loose. The clarinet here sounded very forcing but the flute was rather soft and failed to keep up the style. The whole march-like section soon morphs into a tranquil interplay of the bassoons and horns with the violins, now, as the void. The tambourine here did an outstanding job of keeping the struggle alive through precise accents and eventually, the march-like theme strikes back with even more terrifying percussion lines. Soon after, we hear the first appearance of the celesta. Playing on the beats, it seems to create a sense of order in the preceding chaos. The violins join the celesta with staccatos that progressively soften until the tambourine and silence are left to finish off the section. (Here Nielsen did not resolve the struggle, but he simply let it fade away; in other words, it shall hide under the development for now and show itself later on.)

The silence resulted in a whole new section opening with a triplet played by the oboe, different in atmosphere from the first. The oboe here is much too aggressive. It should have lead softly into the theme, segregating the two sections for contrast. (Nielsen used this tool extensively in his works; evil is not bad enough until heaven appears.) The new theme itself is played by the bassoons, horns, violas and the celli. The strings are too strong in some places and covered the color of the horns; balance seems to have been a recurring problem in the recording. Afterwards, the theme is passed onto the violins and clarinets. Once again, the color of the clarinet is completely drowned out by the violins.

As the theme is repeated, the flute and clarinet start the evil theme, disrupting the calm atmosphere. This continued on, more frequently as the theme stared to stick in the brass section. Inevitably, the strings were eventually affected by the devil and joined the chant. The development of the theme and constant interruption of the evil splits the music apart completely. Tension is building, structure is degenerating, and the only thing holding the music together, tempo, will have to give. “From bar 376, the side drummer plays in his own tempo, as though determined at all cost to obstruct the music. He keeps to his own beat by following a metronome placed in front of him, set to quarter equals 116”. Nielsen’s instructions are clear and simple, since at this point nothing is left to give than tempo itself. The snare drummer plays as though he is practicing on his own. The ‘still developing’ theme underneath the whole chaos ceased to grow in context, the evil motif stopped gaining ground, and the snare drum is the divine voice keeping all forces at bay. The snare drum in this particular recording is the absolute best out of all Nielsen 5th recordings I have ever heard. The tempo the drummer takes is perfect, his improvisation comes in at just the right time making the beats an insignificant matter, and his swells stirs up the soup of sound till it spills all at once, into an unexpected but unifying climax.

The unification of tempo allows the struggle to reach its full intensity. At this point the strings and brass grouped together in opposition of the evil theme which is still played by the winds. The grandioso atmosphere trumps the evil, and after one last scream played by the clarinets and piccolo, it disappeared. The music condenses by a considerable amount, some harmonics fade away and the distance between the floating high notes and low bass notes come closer than before. The snare drum appears again not to disrupt the music but instead affirms order and creates wave-like swells as the climax winds down. Again, to praise the snare drummer, he adheres to the music in this section to give it a sharper focus, a hardly achieved task in most recordings. Order is restored from chaos, peace is reacquired from evil. The string plays a tranquil major chord, and a lone clarinet is left to mourn. The snare drum comes in with one last statement then fades away while the clarinet continues to mourn undisturbed. It is precisely this passage that makes the listener lose track of time in the piece up to this point. The clarinet in the recording could have wound down a lot more, in terms of tempo and dynamics, to make the recently resolved struggle appear as if it were millennia ago. Once again, the snare drummer does a very nice job reminding us of the time passed and the state and atmosphere of the music.

Although this movement wraps up without struggle, Nielsen has not prepared to leave the music mourning forever, because as he realized while writing his previous symphony, “Music is life, and, like it, inextinguishable” – Carl Nielsen.

-Jerry Chiu


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