Interview with Sakari Oramo – Carl Nielsen’s Six Symphonies performed by BBC Symphony Orchestra – “It will illuminate Nielsen’s relation to things that happened in music around him and will take him out of his isolation as a Danish maverick…”

Written by: Colin Anderson

Interview on 12 September 2014 – BBC Symphony Orchestra, Delaware Road, Maida Vale, London

Concerts between 11 October 2014 & 23 May 2015, Barbican Hall, London, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) in 1910

1865 – The year that Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born and also the one that introduced the Dane, Carl Nielsen, into the World, born on Sortelung and who would die in Copenhagen in 1931. (Sibelius lasted much longer, not passing away until 1957.) During its 2014-15 Season the BBC Symphony Orchestra is including six concerts that will embrace the same number of Symphonies left to us by Nielsen.

I am sitting in the room that has been occupied by numerous Chief Conductors of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sakari Oramo is busy preparing for the Last Night of the Proms (review-link below), relaxed and confident, the speech forming in his mind and a stack of manuscripts at his side to be ticked off as he rehearses each one that together form a varied and long Last Night. During the break for lunch, I wonder when Oramo (born 1965) – friendly, witty, and very much in conversation mode, and razor-sharp on the subject of Carl Nielsen – was first aware of this composer’s music?

“Probably at about the age of twelve. I was on one of those music camps that happen a lot in Finland for young people, a two-week retreat, and everybody plays something, all the instruments were there. There was a group of wind-players who played Serenata in vano, a charming piece. That was my first encounter with Nielsen. Then I heard his Suite for Strings, which I also liked very much. But I didn’t get into the Symphonies until the mid-1990s. I played the Fourth Symphony with Leif Segerstam conducting, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.” (Oramo was its leader at the time.)

Ah yes, you are a violinist and so was Nielsen. “Yes, he was a tutti violinist.” Does his writing for the instrument betray his direct experience of playing it? “Well, many string-players think he wanted revenge on his colleagues! These are such difficult parts, very tricky and unidiomatic. That Fourth I mentioned was in a not very good hall in Helsinki, and people commented that the strings couldn’t be heard properly, so that confirmed to me that they must be played with a lot of aggressive energy. But it was a breath of fresh air amidst all that Sibelius, which is wonderful, but can be over-exposed.”

Sakari Oramo. Photograph: Benjamin Ealovega

I put it to Oramo that we (generally) tend to couple composers: Haydn and Mozart, Bruckner and Mahler, Ravel and Debussy – and of course Nielsen and Sibelius. “You don’t do that, it’s bad!” (laughs). “Sibelius and Nielsen are as far apart as can be, although both were born in the same year. Sibelius was from a middle-class family, quite well off and Swedish-speaking, not quite aristocracy, but close. Nielsen was from a simple peasant family, one with a lot of children. Imagine both eating at their tables as boys, very different. Their attitudes to society were very different, too, and you can’t imagine Nielsen as a national hero in the way that Sibelius became in Finland. Nielsen is very important to the Danes but he doesn’t reaffirm the Danish identity. I don’t like to pigeonhole, but the culture between Finland and Denmark is different. In Nordic circumstances, the Danes have an unusual joie de vivre and the food culture is different – all those sandwiches! Denmark is a very central European culture.”

I suggest to Oramo that a Scandinavian trait in orchestral music is a translucence of sound, something not shared by Nielsen. “That’s correct, Nielsen is different. He writes in blocks and his orchestration is also happening in blocks. When he writes fortissimo it is for the whole orchestra and there is no differentiation in dynamics, so the performers have to adjust that. Whereas Sibelius was very careful, from the Third Symphony on, certainly.”

I wonder if Nielsen’s music is more difficult to get into for conductors. After all, Colin Davis and Herbert von Karajan, lifelong champions of Sibelius’s music came to Nielsen’s only late in their careers, Karajan recording the Fourth, Davis the lot. “Nielsen doesn’t allow conductors to display their personalities, because the music is best served by leaving it mostly alone, taking it on trust, producing the drama, giving the fullest energy possible and not stopping for detail.”

If Sibelius’s Seven form a “perfect cycle of Symphonies”, heading towards the concentrated, everything-present Seventh, it seems that Nielsen started afresh each time rather than building upon previous compositions, an opinion that finds Oramo in agreement. It’s time to discuss each of Nielsen’s Symphonies and the BBC concerts that they will appear in.

Between October 11 and May 23 at the Barbican Hall, the Symphonies will be played chronologically and – for our enlightenment – with other music written around the same time. “Good point. Well spotted.” So, the series begins with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony (1893). A door closing? “Yes and not just for Tchaikovsky, but also an era, a period of transition in all culture. Nielsen was opening another door with his First Symphony. It’s a country boy playing with musical fire. The opening is arresting, a huge C major chord and then immediately into G minor. It’s a well-finished symphonic form. He probably knew Niels Gade’s Symphonies, a Danish master and an outpost of the Leipzig School of composing, Mendelssohn and all.” Between these Symphonies is Mozart’s D major Violin Concerto (K218), with Augustin Hadelich – “that’s a piece that is present in most orchestra auditions and Nielsen would have had to play it.”

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) c.1895December 12 – Nielsen’s Second Symphony (The Four Temperaments) as part of a massive programme, which includes music by Rachmaninov and Busoni. “Nielsen and Rachmaninov, not that they would have known it, were kind of musical compatriots, for the developments in Rachmaninov’s music go in a similar way to Nielsen. Rachmaninov’s Spring is a lovely and simple piece for baritone, chorus and orchestra, very pastoral, and provides a really good counterpoint to the extremes of the Nielsen and Busoni.” The latter is the (roughly 70-minute) Piano Concerto. “It’s very big with a male chorus at the end. It’s long overdue a performance and we have the right soloist in Garrick Ohlsson, and also Busoni was the dedicatee of Nielsen 2, so that’s a nice tie. Busoni was a very nice guy and a good friend of both Nielsen and Sibelius, and he had a big influence on both: Sibelius’s Third Symphony would not exist if there was no Busoni; his idea of classicism contributed to Sibelius’s thinking. And Nielsen is very Busoni-friendly from the outset.”

January 16 – Nielsen’s ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ (No.3) is coupled with Sibelius’s The Dryad. “We could have played Schoenberg but it might have blurred the image of this purely cultivated Nordic story. Nielsen 3 is his ‘Eroica’ and the last movement is quite Brahmsian, and there is an enchanted slow movement. I have never conducted The Dryad. I just want to conduct it now, and it’s very difficult to bring off, because nothing happens, it’s a study on material that then went into the Fourth Symphony and maybe the original version of the Fifth.” Occupying the centre spot is Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with Yevgeny Sudbin.

February 18 – We reach the Fourth Symphony, the ‘Inextinguishable’, although I first call it the “extinguishable”, quickly adding an ‘in’. “Yes, in!” (Oramo smiles). Composed halfway through World War One, the music seems to be about renewal and hope. “I think it is. My impression is that Nielsen was horrified by the fact that people were being slaughtered; after all Denmark is very close to Germany, so news would have come through.” A pair of duelling timpanists is a notable feature of the scoring, with both at the front of the platform? “Yes, but that doesn’t work, nor having one at the front and one at the back. I place them at opposite ends at the back so that they talk to each other across the orchestra.” This concert also includes Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin (a memorial to friends lost in WW1), Sibelius’s The Oceanides (exploring watery depths) and Zemlinsky’s gorgeous Maeterlinck Songs with Anne Sophie von Otter.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

April 10 – This concert leapt off the page, and maybe is a first, Nielsen’s extraordinary Fifth Symphony (with its cataclysmic first movement) followed by Ravel’s Boléro. “I have always wanted to do this!” The side drum connection? “Yes, certainly, but not much more than that, but the connection is startling and there is only a couple of years between them.” Ravel’s La valse, also with a WW1 correlation, opens the evening … “and the second movement of Nielsen 5 is a waltz, so there is another connection. Ravel and Nielsen are on parallel lines.” We agree that such an experience – Boléro following Nielsen 5 – can only be done in a concert and communally shared. Bulking the concert is Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, Alexander Toradze in charge of the solo part.

May 23 – Journey’s end, and the remarkable Symphony No.6 (Sinfonia semplice, 1925), arguably Nielsen’s greatest work (but most of his output is marvellous), which stands out for being simple in name and anything but in terms of form and content. One can hear parallels with Charles Ives (if purely coincidental) and also anticipating Shostakovich (born 1906). So, Sakari, what is this ‘simple symphony’ all about? My interviewee makes a gesture, which I describe there and then as him thumbing his nose. “The music is ironic. He’s asking questions of us, and maybe himself. It’s wonderful stuff, and he reminds of Haydn in the way he uses variation form.” Think of how the Symphony ends, with a rude bassoon note; then Haydn’s No.93 would have been a welcome inclusion (a similarly rough bassoon intrudes its slow movement). Oramo likes the idea but reminds of the contemporaneous nature of this Nielsen series.

Also in this final programme, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.4 (with Denis Kozhukhin), the greatest of the four as far as I am concerned (and so say all the pianists that I have ever asked and who play all of this composer’s piano-and-orchestra literature). “Yes, it’s a masterpiece, but it will never be popular. It shares with the Nielsen a philosophical attitude to what has been and what will be. This can’t-miss concert also includes music by John Foulds, whom Oramo has previously lit up. “April-England is the most ecstatic piece of English music ever written. He creates an orchestra that sounds like nothing else, with the use of triads and a slightly polytonal feel. The freshness of this piece goes well with Nielsen 6.” Add further contrast with the wild and lonely place that Tapiola is. “It couldn’t be a bigger contrast; so we have Sibelius’s and Nielsen’s final big orchestra pieces, and the years match, roughly.”

Thus the twentieth-century opened up so much potential for creative artists. “The 1920s was the most magic decade of music-writing, ever; it was better than ever before and better than it’s ever been since.”

Nielsen’s legacy. Is there one? “In Finland we talk about ‘Sibelius’s Shadow’, which suffocated later composers. In Denmark, Per Nørgård certainly, but he denies it, vehemently, even now, but I hear a lot of Nielsen even in his later Symphonies. Other Danish composers have been influenced: it’s about concentrating on the essentials, taking out the fluff. Nielsen was a man with an incredible imagination but who hides the privacy of his feelings, taking a different position with each work, presenting various characters of himself each time. I think he harks back to his childhood, that’s his signature, a looking back, certainly in idyllic movements. I think this is the first time the Symphonies will have been done in the context of his contemporaries. It will illuminate Nielsen’s relation to things that happened in music around him and will take him out of his isolation as a Danish maverick … for he was following outside things with an eager eye and ear, and with great interest.”

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