Nielsen: The Symphonies & Concertos (Live)
23 October 2015
James H. North
Many of us reviewed the single discs of pairs of symphonies; you’ll want to go to the Fanfare Archive, so I won’t cite each review. The consensus was that the Philharmonic is a great Nielsen orchestra, and the Dacapo SACD recordings are superb, but that Gilbert is a bit too cautious to fully achieve Nielsen’s overwhelming vitality. I liked the First, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies better than did my colleagues, although Gilbert cannot compete with Bernstein in the Fifth (nor can anyone else). I found Gilbert’s Sixth suffered from a lack of the imagination shown in other recordings of this strange beast, notably that of Douglas Bostock.
In the Third Symphony, the thrusting, aggressive passages are brilliantly played (although the orchestra is a bit awkward in some multi-rhythmic moments early on), but the contrasting relaxed sections are a bit ho-hum. Bernstein, with the Danish National Orchestra, gets everything just right: sensitive and alive, with a gentle swing and loft that elude Gilbert.
His finale is only five percent slower than Bernstein’s but sounds more so, showing little life until a potent final coda.
The Philharmonic can’t be said to know either the Second or Third Symphony, as each has had only one previous performance: by Bernstein, half a century ago. Neither he nor Gilbert captures the moods of “The Four Temperaments.” Does anyone? Perhaps some of the older Scandinavian performances—Schonwandt, Blomstedt (in Copenhagen), Salonen. At least Bernstein sounds angry in the coda of the “Choleric” movement.
It’s odd that Nielsen—a violinist—wrote much stronger music for woodwinds (in the symphonies, the concertos, and the Wind Quintet) than he did for the Violin Concerto. Over the course of perhaps half a dozen recordings (I’ve never heard it live), I had never warmed to his Violin Concerto, but Nikolaj Znaider brings out unexpected lyricism and color, and Gilbert’s sensible approach to Nielsen works better here than in some of the symphonies.
Julius Baker set the standard for Nielsen’s Flute Concerto, in his recording with Bernstein, and many fine performances followed in its wake. Robert Langevin’s fluent, gossamer playing and ecstatic reading are wonderful; Gilbert’s accompaniment hits the contrasting, bombastic tutti passages just right. This is the highlight of the concerto disc, even of the entire set.
In his review of Dacapo’s Nielsen concerto single disc, Fanfare’s resident clarinetist Richard A. Kaplan tells us that Anthony McGill lacks Stanley Drucker’s chops (in the Sony recording under Bernstein). Ducker clearly shared his conductor’s energetic view of Nielsen’s vitality, and their performance jumps for joy. Gilbert and McGill make some lovely music, but they are tame by comparison, lacking both the beauty and the excitement of their predecessors.
By now we are all familiar with the issue of single discs followed by the box set—the music business’s version of bait and switch. At least the concertos are available as a single disc (remember CBS’s “Paris” Symphonies, for which the third pair was never issued as a single LP). This is a valuable issue, recommended to those who must have SACD. I will stick with Sony’s Bernstein/Ormandy four-CD Nielsen set. Bernstein’s Third and Fifth Symphonies are incomparable, as is his Clarinet Concerto with Drucker. Although I initially shared the consensus disdain of Bernstein’s “Indistinguishable” (the Fourth), I have come to appreciate his detailed examination of that score over the years. Membran’s 10-CD set of Nielsen orchestral and instrumental music is a valuable resource at a great price; but, in spite of Bostock’s imaginative reading of the Sixth Symphony, his Liverpool Philharmonic lacks the color and power of the New Yorkers, and the recorded sound is less vibrant than in the ancient (1962–73) CBS/Sony analog stereo recordings, much less Dacapo’s gorgeous SACDs. RCA’s pairing of Morton Gould’s “The Four Temperaments” and Jean Martinon’s “Inextinguishable” (76237-2) is out of print but readily found; the Chicago Symphony’s playing is fabulous, but one has to accept very fast tempos.