In perhaps the same way that the key of E flat Major inspires the heroic in music (Sibelius below, Beethoven’s Eroica and Emperor Concerto), the number 5 often seems to produce something rather special. Since I began posting on Lazy Sunday the comestibles have been short bon-bons or, to borrow Beecham’s word, ‘lollipops’. This week we push the enlightenment boat out a little further, and invite all you culture-sluts to sample the deeps, and for just a little longer……
The idea that the Dane Carl Nielsen could be a composer to set beside the great Finn Jean Sibelius has gained little traction outside Scandinavia and, on the face of it, they have nothing in common save their birth year, 1865. However, Nielsen’s two movement 5th Symphony is as powerful and original as anything written in the last 100 years. Here we have a pastoral section of the first movement, where the composer suddenly introduces a martial side-drum, with an instruction that it should freely play ‘as if at all costs, he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra’. This amazing conception unfolds and, after a huge orchestral climax, the war-mongering drum is subdued into silence beneath a plaintive cadenza for solo clarinet.
Pausing on a mountain path a German traveller turned to his companion and, pointing to a daisy said ‘that is Mahler’. Then, indicating the distant peaks he remarked ‘and there is Bruckner’. A wildly romantic over-simplification perhaps, but containing more than a grain of truth. By a country-mile the only composer virtually guaranteed to fill a concert hall, Mahler often tips over into sentimentality and vulgarity, something the pious Bruckner was incapable of. Here, just shy of his 90th birthday, the Bruckner wizard Gunter Wand concludes the mighty 5th Symphony to, at first, a stunned silence…
If Carl Nielsen was essentially a humanist, this quality could never be used to describe Sibelius or his highly original music. Nature, usually at her most hostile, is the world that he inhabits, and creates. The monumental 5th Symphony has a tang of the sea in it, no better illustrated than here, at the majestic E flat coda, and the famously original hammer-blows of the conclusion; six cords separated by silence.
The twin towers of the Soviet era, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch were very different characters. Though dying on the same day in 1953 as Stalin, Prokofiev never suffered the level of censure that the state brought to bear upon his confederate; this, mainly because he was a lesser talent, whose music lacked heart, and carried no message, subliminal or otherwise.
The 5th Sym of Shostakovitch (‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’) is an uneven work containing, in I and III some of his greatest music, but in II and IV some of his weakest. But it remains, by some measure, his most popular work and Bernstein, heard here in IV, was a great champion of the piece. Ignoring the non troppo speed marking, he drives forward at a mad speed, forcing a slow-down a little later, before the thumping conclusion. But, as Morrissey knew when he filched the opening theme from the first movement for his rather dull ‘ The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils’, the component parts are good, but the sum of those parts is greater still, and the symphony heard as a whole, rarely fails to stir the emotions.