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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Symphonies by Rudolph Simonsen

available at Amazon
R.H.Simonsen, Symphonies 1 & 2, Overture in g,
Israel Ynon / Sønderjylands SO
cpo 777229 (70:52)
Rudolph Hermann Simonsen was born in Denmark on April 30th, 1889. After a career of composing and teaching—music history and piano at the Royal Danish Conservatory—he became the successor to Carl Nielsen as the Conservatory’s principal. He had an evangelical zeal for spreading classical music among the people, which he attempted with lectures throughout the country and on the radio, articles, and books.

Simonsen greatly admired German culture, so when the Nazi regime assumed power—which meant that the Jew Simonsen and his family had to flee to Sweeden—he suffered a blow from sheer disillusionment. A blow, we are told, from whcih he never recovered after returning to his native Denmark, where he died in 1947, aged 58.

Between 1920 and 1925 Simonsen wrote four symphonies, which are titled “Zion”, “Hellas”, “Roma”, and “Denmark”. The first three are tributes to Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture and form a triptych. “Zion” and “Hellas”, three movements each, are included on the present disc with the Søderjyllands Symfoniorkester (providing concerts throughout Jutland, the part of Denmark attached to the continent) and the 1910 Overture in g is thrown in, too. The unusually lucid liner notes (not van den Hoogen’s, CPO’s regular contributor, and thankfully not in their damnable translations) mention Nielsen, but also Sibelius and Wagner as the main inspirations. Carl Nielsen is an obvious influence for the “Zion” Symphony (which he conducted at its premiere) with its movements “Against Slavery”, “The Promise”, and Allegro con brio.

My initial enthusiasm—“a second Bruckner!”—has cooled a little since first hearing these discs. The “Promise” movement, for example, grinds down to a pretty dark, dull vision of the future before a more pastoral mood lifts it from gloom at around the 10-minute mark. There is some tedium and a few very put-on Jewish-ish colors that benefit from patience during the nearly 19 minutes the movement lasts. The following Allegro is a more engaging conclusion to the work that Artutro Toscanini once expressed interest in. (Can you imagine him in rehearsal: “Is-a not Moses, is-a not Ramses… Is ‘Allegro con brio’”)

The Hellas Symphony, a wonderfully curious aside, got Simonsen a bronze medal at the 1928 Olympic Game. In that neither a gold- nor silver-medalist nor even another bronze-medalist was named in the three composition categories “Song”, “One Instrument”, and “Orchestra”, he could be said to have came in first. Until 1948 Art was part of the Olympics, with medals given in categories (and subcategories) of Architecture, Literature, Painting/Graphic Art, Sculpture, and Music—so long as they were somehow related to the Olympics.

Silver sounds about right: that portentous work doesn’t strike me as a gold medalist, either. The symphony is motif-heavy (and the motifs heavy) and solidly constructed. It even has touching moments like the strings of the “Loneliness in front of the Temples” movement that sweeps up with the feel of a Mahler Adagio and continues with a cool lament of the woodwinds and flutes. But the moments in which I remain fully engaged around the 10th time listening to the work continue to decrease, not increase. My sense why I remain unconvinced by these two symphonies is a vague one, and therefore my description remains vague, too. I only know that the performances cannot be faulted.

The G minor overture, finally, is a wholly enticing 14 minutes of grandeur; probably the reason for my Bruckner analogy in the first place… melodic and sweeping bombast of the finest order and nothing to be vague, only enthusiastic, about.


Anonymous said...

The hazards of dangling modifiers and of including radically differing phrases together in what reads like a series...

I assume you meant the second paragraph to mean "Because Simonson greatly admired Jewish culture, the Nazi regime and its prosecution of Jews—which meant that Simonsen and his family had to flee to Sweeden—was a blow to Simonsen from which, we are told, he never recovered . . ."

As it reads now, my first interpretation was (alas) the surely unintended thought that he was himself a Nazi sympathizer.

That aside, another great, interesting and informative post!

jfl said...

Ouch. That will have to be edited. Thanks for pointing it out. Missing full stop, too, thanks to formatting hazards.