SIMONSEN: Overture in g. Symphony No. 1 in C minor "Zion." Symphony No. 2 "Hellas".
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra /Israel Yinon.
CPO 777 229 TT: 70:52.

Hebraism and Hellenism. Born in 1889 to a family of middle-class Danish Jews, Rudolph Simonsen exhibited superior musical abilities early. His parents didn't stand in his way, exactly, but his father insisted that his son study things other than music, so that he wouldn't wind up a "mere musician." Simonsen read in several languages, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He made his debut as a concert pianist in 19ll and a year later graduated with a law degree from the University of Copenhagen. He also entered the Royal Danish Academy of Music, where he studied both piano and composition. His piano teachers included Teresa Carreno. In 1916, he was appointed to the faculty of the Copenhagen Conservatory and in 1931 succeeded Carl Nielsen as head of that institution.

Simonsen has a rather small catalogue, and he didn't push his work. Indeed, most knew him as a teacher and as a general lecturer and writer on musical subjects. Prior to the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Simonsen fled with his family to neutral Sweden. A previous admirer of German culture, its debasement by the Nazis shook him. Indeed, the entire war, even from a relatively safe haven, broke his health and spirit, and he died in 1947.

If not a student work, the Overture in g, from 1910, certainly sounds like one. Its chief virtue is clarity, but the clarity exposes the triviality of its second-hand and second-rate late Romantic gestures. Calling the work clear is a bit like saying someone has a nice personality.

I'm not sure how deeply Simonsen observed Judaism, but he did have a large interest in its history and culture. He also read deeply classical philosophy, Spinoza, and Goethe. As I mentioned, he read Greek and Hebrew. Ten years after the Overture, the First Symphony appears, and what a difference! It has the distinction of being the first Danish symphony of explicitly Jewish inspiration. By this time, Simonsen has left the minor leagues of Scandinavian music and has decided to follow Carl Nielsen's example. Although it doesn't reach Nielsen's level, his music has leapt in interest. The symphony has two formal movements: "The Struggle Against Slavery" and "The Covenant." "The Covenant" runs about four times the length of "The Struggle" and in fact breaks into four large sections. The first movement discusses a bunch of short motives, all of which express effort, struggle, and stress, including a variant of what I call the "Jewish riff" (G-Ab-C-B-Ab-G), which has long-term consequences throughout the symphony. "The Covenant" begins with a vision of peace, whose unmistakable ancestor is the slow movement of Nielsen's Third, the Sinfonia Espansiva. Here, as there, time is suspended, symbolized by long, long pedal points countered by fragmentary motives in slow, spare counterpoint. We seem to glimpse something unimaginably wonderful on distant horizons. To my ear, Bloch also gets introduced into the mix. The "Jewish riff" appears in a diatonic variant, as well as sporadically in its original form. Gradually, we arrive at a minor mode, perhaps a lament, an acknowledgment of suffering, which turns into a triumphant climax, a little reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Amazingly, Simonsen has confined the musical foundation around two main pedal points. This music doesn't really modulate for about ten minutes. A peaceful chorale follows, leading to another long build and then a fade. A brief pause, and we find ourselves in the midst of a vivacious contrapuntal, very Nielsen-like dance, then a second encounter with parts of the chorale before the dance kicks in again. The dance in turn runs into a final grand appearance of the chorale, and the symphony ends in a blaze.

Simonsen wrote his second symphony, "Hellas," a year later, inspired by a trip to Italy, where he came into contact with classical sites. Of course, he had read deeply in ancient Greek, as well as in Latin. The symphony contains three movements: "The Oresteia," "Loneliness Before the Temples," and "Pallas Athena." It has the distinction of winning a bronze medal at the 1928 Olympics, back when the Olympic Committee, following the ancient festival, awarded prizes to artists as well as jocks. Incidentally, no gold or silver medals in music were awarded that year. The symphony amounts to less of a travelogue and more of a meditation on the Idea of Classical Greece. "The Oresteia" takes off from Aeschylus's trilogy of murder and revenge, not as a tone poem, but as a study in atmosphere. It seems to take a contemporary view of Greek myth as a window on an essentially savage time, just as the Hofmannsthal-Strauss Elektra did decades before. Think of a soundtrack to a classier Road Warrior. Jens Cornelius's liner notes try to argue for it as a successor to Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, but succeeds only in drawing attention to the fact that it doesn't reach the level of either. "Loneliness Before the Temples" isn't particularly melancholy. Cornelius describes it as "a symbol of the ruins' own loneliness." To me, it sounds more "out of time" than lonely, remote yet still affecting, like classical Greek culture itself. "Pallas Athena" is a joyful march. Cornelius tries to relate it to the goddess of victory, but "victory won by high ethical means." Athena, however, was also the goddess of wisdom and arts. Here, I believe Simonsen has tried to capture the joy of ancient Greek culture -- again, with Nielsen's musical means.

The performances are good and, I think, faithful to the quality of the scores. They don't over-inflate the Overture, for example, or underestimate the symphonies. While you can't put the symphonies alongside the Nielsen cycle. they nevertheless have their own interest.

S.G.S. (August 2011)