Commitment, Energy and Joy
Gustavo Dudamel met the Gothenburg Symphony by pure chance; he replaced an indisposed Neeme Järvi for concerts in Birmingham and at the London Proms in August 2005. * Sibelius was of course on the bill, a composer closely associated with the orchestra ever since he conducted it over a 100 years ago. It was Dudamel’s first encounter with Scandinavian music and he developed a taste for it that led to further discoveries, including the symphonies of Carl Nielsen, when he started his tenure as the orchestra’s Music Director in 2007. During their years together, Dudamel and the Gothenburg Symphony have championed the two Nordic masters not only in Gothenburg but also in Stockholm, Bonn, Hamburg, Brussels, Amsterdam, Valencia, the Canary Islands and Vienna. The combination of Latin passion and a profound understanding of tradition have breathed new life into this wonderful music. The international audience in Bonn, Germany, was overwhelmed after a performance of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony at the Beethoven Fest: “Conducting very precisely and without a score, Gustavo Dudamel charged the Adagio with enormous tension, and the following finale with its timpani duel was performed with great drive” (General-Anzeiger Bonn). Scandinavian recognition of the highest order was bestowed on Gustavo Dudamel and the orchestra by the respected critic Carl-Gunnar Åhlén after a Stockholm performance of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony: “Neither on record nor in concert have I experienced his Fifth Symphony so boundlessly expressive, so clearly detailed, so dreaming in its introduction and so life-affirming in its final course of events” (Svenska Dagbladet).
It’s interesting to note that the symphonies in this compilation were actually created within a 30-year span. Bruckner’s last masterpiece, his Ninth Symphony, that fascinating block-built titanic culminant of his total production, was left unfinished at his death in 1896, while Carl Nielsen’s controversial and radical Fifth Symphony received its premiere performance in 1922. All works explore, in different ways, the seemingly endless timbral possibilities of the late 19th-century symphony orchestra, from Bruckner’s massive tutti chords and Sibelius’s mysterious wind and string passages to Nielsen’s innovative and sometimes almost manic use of percussion (timpani and snare drum) underlining his bold visions.
Sibelius and Nielsen may be obvious composers in the Gothenburg Symphony’s repertoire, but it is also an orchestra with a solid Bruckner tradition. Gustavo Dudamel has talked about the sonorous qualities of this orchestra’s way with the Austrian master, as have other Bruckner luminaries who have worked with the orchestra. Among them, Bruckner’s pupil Franz Schalk and late 20th-century Brucknerians like Rudolf Kempe, Heinz Wallberg and, above all, Otmar Suitner, who conducted fourteen Bruckner concerts with the Gothenburg Symphony. Dudamel has performed both the Seventh and Ninth symphonies with the orchestra, and after a performance of the latter he talked appreciatively about the Gothenburg Symphony’s dark, dramatic sound mirroring Bruckner’s intentions. The deeply religious composer worked on the symphony’s finale to the very end, but he was a slow worker. When finishing the Adagio, he wrote: “I have fulfilled my mission on earth, I’ve done it to the best of my ability, and I only wish one thing: that I would have been allowed to finish my ninth symphony! Three movements are almost finished, the Adagio is almost fully composed, only the finale remains to be concluded. May death not take this pen from my hand before that.” But it did. Bruckner died on 11 October, going over the sketches of the finale that very day. Several attempts have been made to finish the movement, and interesting as they may be, we will never know what Bruckner really had in mind. It is a three-movement torso – and a magnificent one at that – to be appreciated in all its unfinished glory.
The Gothenburg Symphony first played the Second Symphony by Sibelius in 1907. The work had absolutely mesmerized the orchestra’s principal conductor at the time, the composer and pianist Wilhelm Stenhammar, who led the orchestra from 1907 to 1922. He wrote to Sibelius about the “wonders you have fetched from unconscious and inexpressible depths”, and the composer repaid the compliment by conducting the Second Symphony on all three occasions when he visited Gothenburg in 1911, 1915 and 1925.
When Sibelius conducted the symphony on his second visit in 1915, disaster was close at hand. He had rehearsed the orchestra successfully in the morning and afternoon of 24 March, and was in an excellent mood. The concert was set at 8 pm. As the hour approached Sibelius was nowhere to be found. A desperate search was organized and the composer was found at one of the city’s choice restaurants, devouring oysters and wine. He was brought back in time for the concert. His wife Aino sat in the audience, fearing the worst, and a few seconds after the first upbeat Sibelius tapped the music stand with his baton signalling a restart, somehow believing he was still in rehearsal. The music moved on, however, and the concert turned out to be a formidable success with standing ovations and resounding hurrahs. Yet, Sibelius was aware of the mishap, and when he left the concert hall he suddenly took out a whisky bottle from his inside pocket and threw it down the stairs where it shattered into a thousand splinters.
The Second Symphony has since become something of a signature piece for the Gothenburg Symphony. The orchestra has performed it 136 times to date, the last five under Gustavo Dudamel.
Carl Nielsen had a long and intimate association with the Gothenburg Symphony. He was invited to conduct his own works by Stenhammar and introduced the Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable”, to the Gothenburg audiences on 5 April 1918, two years after its first performance. This vital and powerful music, a hymn to life – “music is life”, stated Nielsen in a comment on the symphony –, scared and seduced the listeners in equal measure, but they were impressed by the grand design and some beautiful episodes. Stenhammar and Nielsen became close friends. They discussed aesthetics and musical matters, and shared experiences as composers and conductors. When Stenhammar needed time to compose in 1918, he called on Nielsen to stand in as deputy conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony. Nielsen held this position in the autumn of 1918, and conducted the orchestra for several weeks annually until 1922. Altogether, Nielsen conducted 48 concerts with the Gothenburg Symphony from 1914 to 1930. On 21 October 1919 he wrote to his wife: “Now I’ve had a rehearsal with the orchestra and it is truly artistically rewarding to play with these people, because they are sensitive to my smallest intention and show me such great respect that I’m almost embarrassed.” He conducted his controversial Fifth Symphony on 8 March 1922, and the reviewer was somewhat baffled: “Surprises are to be expected from Carl Nielsen, but his latest symphony, the Fifth, almost presents too many . . . but the purely lyrical passages were so beautiful that one has to express great admiration for the composer” (Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning).
These live recordings capture the commitment, energy and joy of the original concerts with Gustavo Dudamel and the Gothenburg Symphony, but they also transcend to something else, which Dudamel has noted: “A recording is like a picture, you know, for memory.”
*History has a tendency to repeat itself. Neeme Järvi first conducted the Gothenburg Symphony in 1980, when he replaced the scheduled conductor, Mariss Jansons, for concerts in Dublin, Aldeburgh and London. The Latvian Mariss Jansons was denied a visa for the tour by the Soviet authorities because his father, the conductor Alfred Jansons, was working abroad at the same time. Soviet authorities would not allow two members of the same family visas because of the risk of defection. As it turned out, Neeme Järvi became Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony 1982–2004, a very important and rewarding relationship which resulted in many praised recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. All those recordings, and this one, were produced by Lennart Dehn.
1. Symphony No. 9 in D Minor - Edition: Leopold Nowak
2. Symphony No. 2 in D, op. 43
3. Symphony No. 5, op. 50
4. Symphony No. 4, op. 29