WORKS: Symphony No. 1 (On the Fair Plains of Zealand); Symphony No. 5
PERFORMER: Ronald Brautigam (piano); Danish National SO/Christopher Hogwood
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10026
‘It is a long time since any piece has struck me as more lively or beautiful’ was Mendelssohn’s verdict on Niels Gade’s First Symphony in 1843. Few would go as far today. But, like all Gade’s music, the work is euphonious and expertly crafted in the Mendelssohn tradition. The themes, though too square and self-contained to expand into truly symphonic paragraphs, are always appealing. The haunting oboe solo that opens the slow movement sounds like a Nordic folksong. And there are programmatic subtexts to both the scherzo and the first movement, whose quotations from Gade’s melancholy song ‘On the Fair Plains of Zealand’ give the work its nickname.
The Fifth Symphony of 1852 is equally attractive, with a darkly Romantic opening theme and a lulling barcarolle slow movement. One novelty here is the obbligato piano part interwoven into the orchestral texture and beautifully played by Ronald Brautigam on a light, faintly hazy 1837 Érard piano. Christopher Hogwood’s direction of the responsive Danish orchestra is fresh and vital, with elegant shaping of the lyrical melodies. But Hogwood is up against strong competition from Neeme Järvi in his Gade cycle for BIS. While differences in interpretation are often negligible, I prefer Järvi’s gentler, more insinuating way with the ‘fairy’ episodes in the scherzo of No. 1 and the extra shot of adrenalin he brings to the finale of No. 5. Where Järvi definitely scores is in the greater colour and transparency of the BIS orchestral sound. The Chandos recording is warm and full but slightly opaque, with insufficiently defined wind and brass detail in the tuttis. Richard Wigmore