Nielsen: The Symphonies & Concertos
10 July 2015
What Carl Nielsen intended as a concerto composer is another matter. Weber wrote just one concerto for bassoon and one for horn; Nielsen, just one apiece for violin, flute and Weber’s favored clarinet. All three of Nielsen’s concertos are late works, dating respectively to 1911-12, 1926 and 1928. The violin concerto moves uneasily on an arc from intensity to frivolity and includes a tribute to Bach through use of the notes of the letters of his name. The flute concerto has what could be called a more serious kind of humor, less rollicking and more controlled, after an opening that is on the verge of sounding hysterical. The bass trombone becomes a distinctly odd partner for the flute part of the time, in one of Nielsen’s more ingenious instrumental pairings. And the clarinet concerto includes atonality, an important snare-drum role, and a contrast between deep melancholy and demonic march passages—Nielsen’s predilection for strong instrumental and thematic contrasts is especially evident here.
The concertos are very well played by violinist Nikolaj Znaider and two first chairs of the New York Philharmonic, Robert Langevin and Anthony McGill. And the orchestra itself performs with excellent responsiveness and a very warm tone for conductor Alan Gilbert in a four-SACD Dacapo recording that also includes all six Nielsen symphonies. The concerto performances are so good that they lift this entire release of live recordings to, or at least close to, a top rating—one that the symphonies do not really merit on their own. The suppleness of the orchestra as accompanist, and the sensitivity that Gilbert shows in weaving the solo instruments into and through the entire ensemble, are less in evidence in the symphonies.
Gilbert’s conducting tends to highlight the similarities among the six, which are really distinguished mostly by their differences: Nielsen had an extraordinary range of thoughts and ideas to pack into symphonic form. The fact that Nielsen repeatedly contrasts near-violent loud and fast passages with quiet ones that seem almost to drift dreamily is clear enough here—but the balancing of the importance of these two stylistic elements is missing: Gilbert generally relishes the intensity but becomes unfocused, even flabby, in the rhythms of the more-thoughtful sections.
Thus, Symphony No. 1 strides forth tempestuously from its opening notes, but soon calms down to a level of overdone placidity—the music need not subside into quietude and a lack of forward impetus, but it does here. On balance, though, the First is more successful in this recording than the Fourth (“The Inextinguishable”), with which it shares a disc: No. 1’s fundamentally classical balance provides it with a graspable structure that the Fourth—which is essentially a single extended movement—does not inherently possess. The Fourth tosses and turns, pulling the audience hither and yon before eventually reaching the affirmation of its title—that music, like life itself, is ultimately inextinguishable. But the elements of the struggle toward that conclusion are downplayed by Gilbert, so the eventual sense of triumph is lessened and muted. And Gilbert seems, oddly, to hold back a bit when the big climaxes become too big, notably in the “timpani duel” of No. 4, which is simply not as intense and gripping as it needs to be in order to pave the way for the sense of positive completion that succeeds it. On the disc of Nos. 2 (“The Four Temperaments”) and 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”), the Third is better by far. Here the orchestra plays with outstanding warmth, the rhythms are supple, the first movement sounds truly expansive (its tempo marking, Allegro espansivo, gives the symphony its title), and the vocalise in the slow movement (featuring soprano Erin Morley and baritone Joshua Hopkins) is lovely.
The finale, though, is on the plodding side, with elements of rhythmic flabbiness not heard earlier in the work. And No. 2 is a real disappointment. There is simply not enough differentiation among these temperaments: the interpretation as a whole, not just the second movement, is phlegmatic—this symphony just does not seem to engage Gilbert and the orchestra as No. 3 does. The finale, in particular, is far too sedate—very far from sanguine. On the recording of Nos. 5 and 6, Gilbert tends to make the works too bland, smoothing their sharp edges and generally taming their frequently outré orchestrations, rhythms and harmonies. Thus, in the Fifth, where the timpani player is at one point famously instructed to play ad libitum and try to disrupt the rest of the orchestra, Gilbert keeps things under such tight control that this aleatoric, highly provocative section becomes merely noisy, which was not Nielsen’s idea at all. As for the bizarre Sixth (“Sinfonia semplice”), which is deliberately crass, overdone, silly, mocking, sarcastic, and at times just plain weird, this work invites a conductor to pull out all the stops and really show what he or she can get an orchestra to do. Gilbert may be up to the challenge, but if so, he chooses not to rise to it: this Nielsen Sixth is very mild indeed, its jagged edges smoothed to such a degree that even the very end (when the bassoons keep playing after everything is finished, as if the conductor failed to cue them to stop) sounds less surprising and strange than it should.
Still, the recordings of all these symphonies deserve recognition for the very fine playing of the ensemble and the excellent sound with which the discs are endowed. And the concerto performances show how much Gilbert is capable of doing with Nielsen’s music when he really sets his mind to it and complements the orchestra’s performance with excellent interpretations by first-rate soloists.