Monday, July 8, 2013

Niels Gade's Symphonies

I’m weird about listening to music: if I like a piece by a certain composer, I buy a lot of music by that composer. A few years ago, for instance, as I listened to the radio, I really liked a symphony by the Danish composer Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817-1890). I love Mendelssohn’s and Schumann’s symphonies, and Gade (whose name is pronounced GAH-deh) belonged to that Romantic era. (Gade was Mendelssohn’s assistant conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and became chief conductor when Mendelssohn died.) As it happened, a complete cycle of his eight symphonies had been recently recorded, conducted by none other than Christopher Hogwood, so instead of purchasing that symphony on the radio, I ordered all of them.

Critics assess Gade as a competent Romantic composer, not quite at the heights of some of his contemporaries. A review at ( writes, “Compared with the fantastically imaginative symphonies of Franz Berwald, his Swedish contemporary, Gade's symphonies are four-square and tidy, Romantic, certainly, but more of a Mendelssohn Romantic than a Berlioz Romantic... While he was clearly a man of strong passions, Gade was unable to translate those feelings into emotionally satisfying music, and one comes away from these works unable to retain a theme or even a feeling.” The reviewer admits that the symphonic cycle conducted by Neeme Jarvi, an able conductor, may be to blame, as Jarvi and his orchestra had comparatively less time to learn the pieces prior to the recording. 

That may be the case, but I like Mendelssohn Romantics, and Hogwood’s recordings are praised by critic Christopher Howell. Using the same adjective “four-square” for the second symphony, which even Gade seems to have had less enthusiasm, Howell enjoys the expressive range and Nordic tone of other symphonies, while admitting that the symphonies are probably better served on CD than in the concert hall. (Apparently his work is today seldom heard in concert outside of Denmark.) Another review, at, calls Gade “certainly a composer who has a gift for honest, well crafted melodies and a penchant for good tunes.” The fifth symphony is interesting because it uses a piano not as a solo but as one of the orchestra’s instruments. 

Hogwood’s CDs have now become linked in my mind with American highway travel. The music was perfect for me as I drove the midwestern landscape in Illinois and Indiana during road trips to see my daughter at her college. Although I love Indiana, the I-70 scenery on both sides of Indianapolis is tedious in its sameness. (Illinois is the same way, but since it’s my home state I’m more tolerant.) Driving barefoot, feeling bored and tired, I welcomed Gade’s Nordic expressiveness, which added sonic vitality to that flat landscape outside my car. 

Looking up these CD reviews, I think I’d like to discover Berwald next, maybe for my next road trip!  

(I'd forgotten that I'd written a little bit about Gade before, in the context of Schumann's bicentennial: )

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