Part 01. Theme: Allegretto
Part 02. Variation 1: L'istesso tempo
Part 03. Variation 2: Crotchet = quaver del precedente
Part 04. Variation 3: Poco meno
Part 05. Variation 4: Allegro non troppo
Part 06. Variation 5: [No tempo marking]
Part 07. Variation 6: [No tempo marking]
Part 08. Variation 7: [No tempo marking]
Part 09. Variation 8: Prestissimo
Part 10. Variation 9: Adagio
Part 11. Finale: Minim = crotchet del precedente
The first three variations preserve the outline of the tune. No 1, which shows some of Simpson’s most evocative scoring, scatters Nielsen’s four keys throughout the entire range of the orchestra amidst strange half-lights and high violin figurations, whereas No 2 adopts a more full-blooded mode of expression, emphasizing the interval of the fifth, both harmonically and melodically. The next variation, in a gently rocking triple time, assumes the mood of a lullaby. It is hushed throughout as the main melody is passed principally between solo winds, muted horns in unison, high violins and divided lower strings.
Variations 4, 5 and 6, played without a break, represent a scherzo, started by the strings with a real sense of latent, bubbling energy. The texture builds in variation 5 as the winds colour the texture, and tension mounts further still in variation 6 with a characteristic Simpson crescendo. The climax is reached at variation 7. This is an impressive display of rugged power, with plenty of brass, as the tonalities conflict with maximum force. An acceleration leads into the eighth variation – a light, airy scherzo, transparent in scoring and with more than a touch of mischief. The humour is intensified latterly by the tuba, who evidently feels like asserting himself once more by introducing his part of the original theme, though, alas, he choses the ‘wrong’ key of A. But the character changes radically for variation 9 – a fully formed symphonic slow movement, deeply contemplative throughout, featuring a broad chorale alternating between solo cellos and trombones.
The second part of the work, the Finale, starts very quietly with a calm string fugato. As with many of Simpson’s larger finales, the pulse remains unaltered, though an impression of an increase in tempo is achieved by shortening the length of bars until we find ourselves propelled by a fierce momentum reminiscent of a Beethoven scherzo. Throughout these closing bars Nielsen’s theme is continually evolved and keys collide with sustained power. But the key of C is allowed the last word.
The Variations on a theme by Nielsen were commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and were dedicated to Ray and Rosemary Few.
from notes by Matthew Taylor © 2004