Herbert Blomstedt conducts Beethoven and Nielsen

25 May 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert Blomstedt

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, op. 60 (38 min.)

  • Carl Nielsen
    Symphony No. 5, op. 50 (41 min.)

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    Herbert Blomstedt on Beethoven and Nielsen (19 min.)

Between the Eroica and the Fifth, often titled the “Symphony of Destiny” in the music history books, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony from 1806 never had an easy time of it. Until the present day, it may well be the most rarely played one, and thus even for avid classical music lovers the composer’s most unknown symphony.

What a pity! With the Fourth, Beethoven succeeded in creating a work which seamlessly links to the musical accomplishments of its much more popular predecessor. Its predominantly relaxed, cheerful tone seems to be the background against which the dramatic developments of the Fifth were able to take shape. The composer was described by his contemporaries during his work on the Fourth as “in the mood for every prank, of good spirits, lively, enjoying life, witty, not seldom also satirical” – and Beethoven’s music of those days certainly has comparable traits. So it is high time to get to know (once again) this side of the “titan”.

The music of Carl Nielsen is also worth discovering. Between 1891 and 1925 the Danish composer created six contributions to the symphonic genre – and pursued his own highly individual path in the border area between the late Romantic and Modern eras. In this concert programme, his Fifth, for which the Berliner Philharmoniker invited Herbert Blomstedt, one of Nielsen’s most important contemporary champions, forms an antithesis to Beethoven’s Fourth.


Beethoven’s Fourth and Nielsen’s Fifth

A bit much really! There’s no other way to describe it. Six fully-fledged symphonic works, lightened up with a couple of interspersed opera arias and, to boot, all by the same composer. It all seems to have gone down well with listeners. In any case, there are no reports of grumbling or slamming of doors. We’re talking here about the two-day marathon devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven at the beginning of March 1807, for which Prince Lobkowitz invited well-heeled music lovers to his palace in Vienna. The programme offered the first four symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Coriolan Overture and arias from Fidelio – an enormous range of works. Already familiar to listeners were the opera and the first three symphonies. The other three works were experienced as novelties, and of those three it was apparently the Symphony No. 4 in B flat major op. 60 that came as the greatest surprise, on account of its unexpected high spirits after the Eroica. Ascertaining that it is closest to the Second in character, however, does not lessen its originality.

More telling is, for example, the interlocking of the B flat minor Adagio introduction and the beginning of the Allegro vivace main movement. The deliberately pacing thirds and the tentative up- and downward quavers (eighth notes) on the first violins prove to be the germ cell of everything that follows, generating the first and the two subsidiary themes. Though this triple thematic constellation does not generate serious conflicts, some unexpected events do occur before the recapitulation: all motion comes to a halt in the distant key of B major in a stoppage similar to the introduction: the rolling figure of the main theme runs out of momentum, and only a persistent timpani roll on B flat manages to get things moving again.

The second movement, intimate and tranquil, provides a stark contrast to the first. The dreamy duetting of first violins and cellos is counterpointed from the outset by the knocking 4th motif, which wanders in the course of the movement from the strings to the timpani (the wind also take it up) and gives rise to sharply dissonant sforzato chords. The tension between lyricism and drama recurs repeatedly, with fortissimo prevailing – unconventionally, especially as the following scherzo (originally called, almost misleadingly, a minuet) opens with similar vehemence. The last movement is dominated by unrelenting motion: a perpetuum mobile that brakes only after 342 bars with two pairs of tutti strokes followed by a general pause. Then the semiquaver (16-note) motif appears briefly at half tempo before a rushing downward cascade leads to the terse final cadence.

If Beethoven’s first biographer Anton Schindler, writing in the decade after the composer’s death, could still confirm the resounding success of this friendly, transparent and easily grasped symphony in B flat, that popularity would wane in succeeding decades in favour of the “weightier” Nos. 3, 5, 7 and 9. This may have to do with the Romantic penchant for the heroic; the “titan” with whom Beethoven was conventionally identified seemed to be expressing himself far less distinctly in the Fourth. Even at that time, however, Schumann and Mendelssohn – as both conductors and critics – were attempting to counter the relative disdain. In Schumann’s opinion, the Fourth appeared like “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants”. This position may still be making its life more difficult even today.

Although born into late Romanticism – Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Jean Sibelius were his almost exact contemporaries – the Dane Carl Nielsen began early on to depart from the mainstream and to develop an individual musical language. His compatriot Finn Høffding described him as “the first anti-Romanticist not only in Denmark but in the whole of Europe. His anti-Romanticism was reflected by, among other things, the way in which he began, unlike other contemporary composers, to simplify his musical style. Whereas other sought to complicate harmony through increased chromaticism – ultimately leading to an abandonment of tonality and surrendering to pure colouristic effects – he turned back completely and opted for purely contrapuntal writing.” To illustrate that observation with a few characteristics: Nielsen’s melodic writing is typified by the continual repetition of a particular interval or by circling around a single note, by a predilection for the church modes and old Danish hymns, although without allowing a nationalistic note to enter as one finds in Grieg and Sibelius.

Nielsen composed his Symphony No. 5 op. 50 between 1920 and 1922. The first movement was finished by the end of March 1921, but he did not then feel inclined to begin the second: “I have a rather strong feeling that my old creative talents are deserting me.” In the summer he occupied himself with the “lyrical humoresque” Springtime on Fyn for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, before tackling the second movement of the symphony at the beginning of September. He then worked relatively quickly, completing it by mid-January 1922. The striking difference in character between the two movements is surely a result of this break in composing.

Violas and bassoons open the first movement with an extended passage in Tempo giusto, initially oscillating on a minor 3rd, then spreading to 5th, 4ths and 7ths. This ostinato is answered by the clarinets and again by the remaining strings, which soon initiate a flowing continuation of crotchets and quavers (quarter and eighth notes), including quasi-diatonic melodic formations. The next new idea brings some staccato bars until the side drum suddenly makes its presence known with a piercing repeating motif. This gives rise to a conflicting musical layer that governs the rest of the movement – even metrically: the drum must play in a tempo independent of the rest of the orchestra, changing into free improvisation, which in the closing bars is taken up in two cadenza-like solo passages from the principal clarinet. The overall form steers – in broad but unrelenting variations drawn from the reservoir of intervals – towards several dynamically heightened climaxes before an Adagio section, featuring a kind of choral writing (which however gradually disintegrates), once again opens a new window. The only thing that can be spoken of as a recapitulation is that Nielsen goes through all the motivic ideas again – in the manner, already described, of constant repetition and oscillation around one or another central note. The movement ends extremely quietly and with the silencing of the side drum.

The second movement, at least in its initial impulse, could have been inspired by the scherzo of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony but, it goes without saying, Nielsen comes up with surprisingly “modern” inventions – once again departing from his predecessors, as the critic August Felsing pithily articulated shortly after the work’s premiere: “Intellectual art is what the second part represents, and it is a master who utters it. But the pact with the eternal in art that radiates from the first part is broken here.” It has often been emphasised, with reference to the brief Tranquillo and Andante episodes, that beauty is of the essence in this Allegro movement. Yet the music forges ahead so irresistibly that even pure D, G and B flat chords are experienced not as foreign bodies but as intensifications. Nielsen also does justice to his special interest, counterpoint, with a “genuine” fugue that precedes the last third of the movement, where a reprise of the opening – faithful at least in character – is heard.

Taken as whole, this movement demands of the orchestra and conductor an exceptional mastery of their metier: the unusually dense instrumentation as well as the still disorienting harmonic indeterminability require the most alert ensemble playing imaginable – and the sensitivity to ensure that the E flat major ending of the massive coda does not come off as a truism. There remains as a role model the Copenhagen Music Society’s orchestra, which gave the premiere and was only too glad to accept five rehearsals instead of the regular three.

Helge Jung

Translation: Richard Evidon

Herbert Blomstedt was born in the United States to Swedish parents. After early lessons at the Stockholm Conservatory and the University of Uppsala, he studied conducting in New York, contemporary music at Darmstadt and Renaissance and Baroque music in Basel. After working as an assistant to Igor Markevitch and Leonard Bernstein, he made his professional debut as a conductor with the Stockholm Philharmonic in February 1954 and soon went on to become principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he remained from 1975 to 1985. He spent the next decade as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, returning to Europe in 1996 as principal conductor as of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, a post he held until 1998. From 1998 to the end of the 2004/2005 season he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Herbert Blomstedt is now conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, which he has conducted on a regular basis since 1982. In 2007 the Dresden Staatskapelle awarded him its Goldene Ehrennadel. Among the orchestras with whom he has appeared as a guest conductor are the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, all the leading American orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic and the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Japan. Herbert Blomstedt made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976 and has returned on frequent occasions since then, most recently in June 2012, when he conducted three concerts with Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. He is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and holds several honorary doctorates. He was awarded the “Großes Verdienstkreuz” (Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit) of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2003.

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