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.
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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
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
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
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.
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
which turns into a triumphant climax, a little reminiscent of Richard
Strauss. Amazingly, Simonsen has confined the musical foundation around
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
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)