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Dacapo - The National Music Anthology of Denmark

Format:  SACD

Catalogue Number:  6.200003

Barcode:  747313300365

Release Date:  Jun 2015



Nielsen: The Symphonies & Concertos (Live)

23 October 2015  Fanfare
Phillip Scott

The fact that 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Carl Nielsen’s birth probably accounts for the appearance of these two recent surveys of his complete symphonies. It was also fortuitous that the American conductor of the New York Philharmonic (soon to move on from that role) had spent much of his previous career in Scandinavia. A Nielsen series from Gilbert in New York was a no-brainer, and his Dacapo recordings were taped live in concert. They have been issued individually over the past year or so, and are now collected together in a box set, along with a new recording of the three concertos. The Chandos set from Storgårds and the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic is an entirely new release.

Fanfare reviewers have been in two minds about Gilbert’s recordings. The general consensus seems to be that the performances are exceptionally well played and balanced, the composer’s scoring clarified to an unprecedented extent, especially in tuttis, compensating to some degree for lower energy and a lack of dynamism in the conductor’s approach. Certainly, Gilbert’s Nielsen is low-key in comparison to beloved older recordings: Bernstein’s CBS versions of Symphonies No. 3 and No. 5 have been mentioned, to which I would add Morton Gould’s RCA recording of No. 2 and Martinon’s of No. 4. All of these blaze more brightly, as do recent performances from Dudamel and the Gothenburg Orchestra of Nos. 4 and 5 (DG).

Unquestionably, there are places where Gilbert seems to miss the point. The phlegmatic second movement of Symphony No. 2 (allegro commodo e flemmatico) could be more aptly titled lethargic, and there is certainly no hint of a two-fingered salute in the concluding low bassoon note at the end of No. 6. Such details of character suffer under Gilbert’s clinical approach, but in musical terms he has a lot to offer. Again in No. 2, the melancholic slow movement may begin in a more subdued state than usual but it builds to a magnificent climax. (Throughout the whole cycle, the New York horns put those of other orchestras to shame.) Big moments, such as the snare drum’s manic interjections in Symphony No. 5 and the timpani battle in No. 4, register forcefully as pure music if not necessarily as existential crises.

I must admit I have grown fond of Gilbert’s set as I have gotten to know it. For one thing, I have long been waiting for a recording to clarify and balance Nielsen’s orchestration so acutely. Dacapo’s previous set from the late 1990s (since released on Naxos) places Michael Schønwandt’s Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra at a distance in a reverberant acoustic. Schønwandt’s performances are considerably more passionate than Gilbert’s, and bracingly large scale, but whenever things get busy too much detail is lost. The same problem rules out of contention the Brilliant Classics set from 2005 with Theodore Kuchar conducting the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, despite the fact Kuchar is a fine conductor whose expert pacing and rhythmic impetus are welcome assets in this music.

One thing Gilbert does is to bring overall continuity to six highly individual works. Thanks to his clarity, the textures of the First Symphony sound like Nielsen rather than secondhand Brahms. The idiosyncratic wind writing of “The Inextinguishable” is already clearly present in the earlier symphonies (so subtly blended by the New York musicians), and by toning down the sarcasm of the Sixth, Gilbert brings that troubled work more firmly into the world of the preceding five. The Sixth’s peculiar scherzo seems playful rather than sardonic, its trombone glissandos coming across simply as a textural effect. For once, “semplice” is not an ironic misnomer.

Gilbert’s fourth CD, comprising Nielsen’s concertos for violin, flute, and clarinet, is completely successful. Znaider’s account of the Violin Concerto outclasses his excellent debut recording (EMI). His vibrant tone, faultless pitch, and clean attack all indicate his close familiarity with the piece, and the orchestral accompaniment is not unexpectedly first-class. The soloists in the wind concertos come from within the ranks of the orchestra (as did their distinguished predecessors Julius Baker and Stanley Drucker in Bernstein’s 1966 and 1967 recordings). Both flutist Robert Langevin and clarinetist Anthony McGill shine. Gilbert’s accompaniments are by no means devoid of character either: The important trombone part in the Flute Concerto, acting as a kind of belligerent anti-flute, is properly and strongly emphasized. These lively performances have much more color than Rattle’s well-mannered Berlin versions with Emmanuel Pahud and Sabine Meyer, although no clarinetist has ever equaled Ib Erikson on Decca in the 1950s for sheer gutsy volatility.

Turning to the new set of the symphonies from Chandos, we are dealing with a conductor who, like the composer himself (and Alan Gilbert) began as a professional violinist. He is leading one of the top recording orchestras, for a label known for its excellent sound. How do the Chandos recordings compare? (I should point out that I heard them from mp3 downloads, although they sound quite acceptable on my system.) Størgards strikes me as closest to Schønwandt in his large-scale conception of the symphonies, but without the latter’s clarity issues. His performances are detailed and well paced: For example, his sustaining of momentum through the ebb and flow of the Fifth’s first movement is impressively compelling. The string fugato ( presto) in the second movement dances along with a kind of malign delight. In the “Espansiva,” that archetypal Nordic passage featuring wordless soprano and baritone ariosi which sounds glacial and cool even with Bernstein at the helm blooms under Størgards like a fugitive burst of sunlight, and there are many other effective moments.

I do not mean to denigrate Størgards or the BBC Philharmonic by saying that they do a thoroughly professional job—it is much more than that—but I still have a niggling feeling that their performances are missing something of the heart that went into Bernstein’s, and the thought that went into Gilbert’s. It is possibly a matter of personal profile, because in every way this set is superior to those of Douglas Bostock and the Royal Liverpool Symphony Orchestra (a weaker orchestra), the London Symphony Orchestra with the late Ole Schmidt (balance problems, although there is a palpable sense of discovery in the music-making), and the middle-of-the-road readings by Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (to my mind, overrated).

If comparisons are odious then so is this review, because comparison is what it is all about…and I haven’t even mentioned the complete set from the late 1980s featuring a young, impulsive Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Sony), which is full of interesting choices and possibly contains the best recording of the Sixth Symphony. Salonen, so comfortable with the moderns, simply “gets” that elusive work. Whomever you prefer (and Størgards is definitely a contender for top choice), you will surely be convinced that Nielsen was one of the very greatest composers—not just of symphonies, but of music.

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