The Music of Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen

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S. NIELSEN: Toccata, Concerto for Organ & Orchestra.1,4 Ophelia Dances, Concerto for Accordion & Sinfonietta.2,3 Symphony No. 3 / 1Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen, org; 2Bjarke Mogensen, acc; Aarhus Symphony Orch.; 3Arhus Sinfonietta; Henrik Vagn Christensen, 4Ari Rasilainen, cond / Dacapo 8.226581

Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen (b. 1958) is a church organist and composer whose work is built up “from modest or fragmentary means.” At the very opening of Toccata, I was afraid that this was going to be one of those albums of music which I refer to as “schlumph,” i.e., indiscriminate ugly sounds piled one on top of another, making little or no sense, but it quickly moved into complex and interesting directions. Swirling figures played by the organ are lightly colored by the orchestra sections as it weaves its way along, shifting the rhythm and moving in and out of some very dark places into the light and back again. This sort of perpetuum mobile continues for the first eight minutes, eventually receding to quieter realms at the 8:40 mark where the tempo slows down to about one-quarter of its original pace, with faster outbursts from the orchestra coming and going. The music then slows to a crawl as well as to a pianissimo with tubas and chimes in the background; small, lower-pitched swirling figures, played by sub-toned clarinets, come and go as well. Eventually the pace picks back up a bit, with a much more lyrical melody played by the strings, and the ending sort of fades away into nothingness.

In the Ophelia Dances, a concerto for accordion(!) and sinfonietta, Nielsen claims to hear in his music the “fragile character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Whether you do or not is up to you, but it is certainly strange and interesting music, more “ambient” in sound but still well structured beneath its odd sonorities. Though apparently a continuous work—it is not banded on the CD—it is clearly composed in discrete movements, placing the accordion in the midst of bitonal swirls of sound and pungent brass and string interjections. Strange it most certainly is, though its allusion to “dances” escapes me as none of this music has a dance rhythm—at least, not until the very end, where an odd, stiff sort of manic dance step introduces itself.

The Symphony No. 3, written in 2010, also uses a sort of musical “big bang” at the outset, followed by “stuttering fragments” which “muster to initiate the development of the symphony’s vertical structure, supported by foundations in the form of tectonic pedal notes.” This is indeed a technical description of what happens, but the listening process is more emotional and therefore more fascinating. Nielsen himself describes the symphony as a musical way of “watching life” with “many different persons set in motion.” Thus does the symphony slowly develop, eventually overlapping sounds and fragments to create a complex web of sound that builds through a slow crescendo to a climax before receding into a soft mélange of glockenspiel over clarinets. The symphony then sort of chirps its atonal way off to the sunset.

A strange sort of album, then, yet fascinating and certainly worth a listen!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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