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5.0 out of 5 stars A masterly overture and two engaging symphonies that make an ideal introduction to Gade, 19 Oct 2009
This review is from: Symphonies Vol. 3 (Hogwood, Danish Nso) (Audio CD)
The overture, `Echoes of Ossian' Op.1, was - along with his first symphony - one of the works that catapulted Niels Gade to fame, not just in Denmark but also on the European music scene in general. Mendelssohn took the young composer under his wing and Schumann too was an admirer. Those two works were generally considered to have a pronounced Nordic flavour, so much so that Schumann was moved to caution his Danish colleague not to "succumb to his own Nordic fantasy" lest it restrict his artistic growth.* Whether or not Gade heeded that advice or whether he simply became more of a traditionalist as he matured, his later works eschew any overt nationalist overtones and are chiefly remarkable as polished examples of the conservative, "Leipzig style".**

"Echoes of Ossian", the overture that caused such an effect among Gade's peers, is as stirring and as Romantic a work as was penned by any composer of his generation. The impassioned sonata form `allegro' is framed by a bardic-sounding theme that emerges from the depths of the orchestra before being stated loudly in the brass over stabbing string figures; it is in fact a traditional Danish melody and extremely effective as a suggestion of the bard Ossian prefacing the tale he is about to narrate. The main body of the work is, by turns, martial and haunting, Gade making effective use of the harp and the strings to summon up the atmosphere of an ancient and misty Celtic past.

By the time he came to write his third symphony, instruments such as the harp are nowhere to be found and he works with a far more traditional orchestral palette. The work has drawn some criticism for being too much within the orbit of Mendelssohn and there are indeed some echoes of that composers own third symphony, the "Scottish"; early reviews by contrast were far more positive, stating uncategorically that work was distinctive in particular for bearing the influence of no other composer. It has long been one of my favourites among Gade's cycle of symphonies and, despite his avoidance of overt nationalist elements, it still breathes the air of the Early Romantic movement: the first movement in particular contains some beautiful writing for the woodwind and the strings, while the finale has a broad, fanfare-like theme that has an irresistible swing to it and it carries the movement to it's vigorous conclusion with considerable momentum. I have been listening to this symphony again a good deal recently, in the Collegium Musicum Copenhagen performances on Da Capo as well as the version reviewed here, and I think I am inclined to side with the early reviewers who admired the work so much.

The sixth symphony is a different piece again. As with the two symphonies that succeeded it, it is most definitely a work in the Leipzig fashion, reflecting the tastes and artistic values of that bastion of musical conservatism. It was the first symphony Gade wrote following the death of his first wife, though the minor key shouldn't lead you to expect an outpouring of grief. Like much of his music, this is an urbane and generally mellifluous piece that doesn't wear its heart on its sleeve. That said, the short `andante sostenuto' contains some affectingly tender writing and the finale has a vigour and liveliness that isn't always to the fore in Gade's later works. It received a scathing review when it was played by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1871 and there were suggestions that Gade had rather played himself out; to be fair, the work was on its way to being fifteen years old when it made an appearance in Vienna, this at a time when developments in Romantic music were moving on at a pace that Gade couldn't keep up with and probably didn't even want to try to; perhaps, even for 1856-57, it is a tame and slightly old-fashioned sounding symphony but it has melodic interest and a lot of charm and that feeling of expert polish that Gade seems to have brought to all his works. It may not represent him at his most inspired, but it is still representative of him and that counts for a good deal.

The performances under Christopher Hogwood leave nothing to be desired and he conducts these scores as if to the manner born. Chandos has provided the artists with a fine soundscape too, that picks up all the detail in Gade's sophisticated but not ostentatious scoring. If you like music from this period and you don't already know Gade, this - and the disc containing his first and fifth symphonies, Symphonies Vol. 4 (Hogwood, Danish Nso) - could well be the ideal place to start investigating his charming sound-world.

Warmly recommended.


* from Schumann's article on Gade, in the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, 1843.

** in fact, Gade succeeded Mendelssohn as conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra in 1847, only to relinquish the post a year later when war broke out between Prussia and Denmark.
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Symphonies Vol. 3 (Hogwood, Danish Nso)
Symphonies Vol. 3 (Hogwood, Danish Nso) by Niels Wilhelm Gade (Audio CD - 2002)
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