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Nordic Symphonies - Alternative Concert Experience

Long Read



Playing great music is much more than a profession. We musicians love to play for our audience, and we miss you very much! Health and safety are, however, the highest priority, so please stay well!

I very much look forward to seeing you next time, as well as the musicians from Royal Northern Sinfonia, and the beautiful North East which has become my second home.

As we cannot be together to make this music, my recommended recordings are in the playlist to the right.

Thomas Zehetmair



Sibelius Symphony No.7

The acknowledged master of the symphonic form in the early 20th century was beginning to have his doubts over its future in his hands.

“I wonder whether the name ‘symphony’ has done more harm than good to my symphonies,” Jean Sibelius recorded in his diary in October 1914. “I’m really planning to let my inner being – my fantasy – speak. One needs to broaden the prospect.”

That fantasy was realised with such overwhelming force in the Symphony No.7 in C major, the composer’s last published symphony.

It certainly was published as a symphony, but not before Sibelius had set aside a number of reservations about the composition, which he had dubbed Fantasia sinfonica when it was first performed in Stockholm in 1924.

The marvel of this one-movement work is that it unfolds like a blossoming flower. Underlying the piece is the more familiar structure of the kind of symphony Sibelius’ audiences would have accepted, but here the formal divisions of the movements are discarded. True, there are allegro sections at its opening and in an ecstatic closing passage, along with gestures of a slow movement and a more lighthearted scherzo, and the solo trombone’s sombre call acts as a rallying point at cardinal moments in the symphony’s progress.

But the beauty of the symphony – the crowning glory in Sibelius’ contribution to the form – is its seemingly easeful, if not organic, progression towards the climax that has been promised from the outset.

Mozart Oboe Concerto

Mozart composed his Oboe Concerto in C in Salzburg in 1777 for Giuseppe Ferlendis (1755-1802), the oboist who had joined the Archbishop’s court orchestra in April that year.

The concerto is perhaps more familiar to us today in Mozart’s own reworking of it for flute and orchestra. That came about in 1778 when Mozart, desperate – as always – for money and a wider appreciation of his skills as a composer, accepted a commission from a Dutch amateur flautist Ferdinand De Jean (1731-1797) who promised 200 gulden for three ‘short, simple’ concertos and four quartets featuring the flute.

Time was running out and Mozart had only managed to compose two quartets and one concerto, the K313, as the deadline approached. Finally, Mozart decided to slip in the Oboe Concerto, now in D majorwith the solo part skilfully refashioned for the flute. De Jean presumably learned of the ruse, because the wretched Mozart only got 96 gulden for his efforts.

The years at Salzburg were oppressive for the young Mozart, tied to the archbishop who verbally abused him, treated him as a lowly servant and certainly did not appreciate his developing talents – and yet the Oboe Concerto in C gives no hint of such miseries.

The orchestral Allegro aperto introduction is buoyant and cheerful. The oboe enters with a flourish before launching into a lively interchange with the orchestra. The melody-rich movement ends with a dazzling cadenza from the soloist.

The slow and dignified start to the Adagio non troppo in F major introduces us to more wonderfully melodic passages, with Mozart allowing the solo oboe the freedom to display the instrument’s range and introduce new material.

The oboe opens the finale with a cheerful theme which takes on the quality of an operatic aria in its dialogue with the orchestra – and in fact Mozart, once again recycling useful material, used this theme for Blonde’s aria Welche Wonne, welche Lust in the opera Die Entführung which he was to compose five years later.

Nielsen Symphony No.1

As the symphony’s final notes reverberated through the hall the applause began and grew louder, now with excited calls for its composer to show himself – and when a young string player stood up from among the second violins to take the first of several bows, many in the audience were taken aback. That concert in Copenhagen, given by the Chapel Royal Orchestra in March 1894 under the baton of its director Johan Svendsen, marked the sensational symphonic debut of Carl Nielsen, destined to be Denmark’s most respected composer.

Nielsen was already writing music when he joined the royal chapel orchestra in 1889, having had modest success with a suite for strings he wrote as a Royal Danish Conservatory graduate. His composing talent was soon recognised and fostered by Svendsen, who also allowed him to conduct in addition to his violin duties.

Nielsen began work on his first symphony as early as 1890 while studying in Berlin. It was there that he pursued a passing interest in Richard Wagner’s music. His interest in that by Johannes Brahms was more enduring and as an exercise he even memorised Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor, a work he revered as a score ‘one might think had come down from Heaven’.

In this first symphony, and in all five that were to follow, Nielsen exercised a flexible approach to the traditional practice that allows modulation through related keys within the stated ‘home’ key. The First Symphony declares itself to be in the key of G minor but opens and concludes in the unrelated key of C major. This is an early example of Nielsen’s ‘progressive tonality’ where, in this case, the designated key of G minor is simply the path for an eventful journey towards a C major destination.

Nielsen insisted he never ‘drew up a plan’ for any of his symphonies: ‘They started from an idea of something or other, and developed into something complete. They came to me of their own accord and I have always felt that this could never turn out badly, because it was part of myself’.

The Symphony No.1 predates publication of the first symphonies of Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler and the unfamiliarity of this tonal approach by an untested 27-year-old disconcerted early commentators. Charles Kjerulf, Denmark’s leading music critic, wrote that the work was ‘unsettled and brutal in its harmonies and modulations, but nevertheless so wonderfully innocent and unknowing, as if one saw a child playing with dynamite’. When the Symphony No.1 was performed in Berlin two years later it enjoyed a much more empathetic reception. Its assertive, vigorous and independent qualities were recognised and well appreciated.

It’s typical of Nielsen’s cheerful dynamism that his symphonic debut should be with a movement to be performed ‘proudly’ – Allegro orgoglioso  – and introducing its unorthodox C major introduction to the G minor work. The flute and oboe lead to a gentler second subject and this theme, along with the first, are energetically developed. The Andante offers a flowing pastoral melody that’s tender without being sentimental. There are moments of passionate intensity at its heart before woodwind calls help restore the tranquil mood.

The third movement is another Allegro – comodo, ‘comfortable’, this time – in the form of a scherzo, but one whose traditional lightheartedness is overshadowed by some complex rhythms and examples of those C major/G minor interchanges. A chorale for brass attempts a calming influence on this fevered dialogue but only succeeds just before the concluding bars.

The key of C major opens and dominates the Allegro con fuoco (‘brisk and forceful’) final movement, although it remains in conflict with its G minor combatant for much of the run. There is some delicate deliberation at the start of the central development, but eventually Nielsen asserts his authority and clears the path towards that elusive C major goal and the symphony’s resplendent climax.

Programme Notes – Richard Yates.