Carl Nielsen: Symphonies 2 and 3
01 July 2013
Enjoy the Music
Max WestlerBack in the day, even second-tier American orchestras had contracts with major record companies
, thereby insuring a steady flow of product. If you wanted to know what was going on in Chicago with Fritz Reiner, or in Boston with Charles Munch, or in New York with Leonard Bernstein, all you had to do was head for the “New Releases” bin in your local record store. These days, as you already know, union contracts have made the cost of recording sessions prohibitive, so most of the major orchestras have taken to releasing their own performances on in-house labels. In New York, the Philharmonic has made Alan Gilbert’s entire first season as music director available as downloads you can purchase directly from the orchestra’s web site, but this does a Luddite like me little good. So here we are three years into his tenure, and this new SACD release of Nielsen symphonies on the Dacapo label is really my first opportunity to listen seriously to his work.
It is perhaps foolhardy to judge Gilbert’s work with the orchestra from this limited sampling, but of course being a foolhardy critic that’s not going to stop me. In general, I had a very positive response both to Gilbert’s interpretations and the playing of the orchestra. Gilbert, now forty-six, reminds me a lot of the young Bernard Haitink. Like Haitink then and now, Gilbert possesses a perfect ear for balances. I’ve never heard Nielsen’s sometimes dense orchestration sound so detailed and transparent. Those who know this music well will be startled at just how much they hear. No conductor has ever taken me deeper into these scores: the inner voices are lucidly delineated. That same clarity is enhanced not only by the playing of the musicians who make the most of even the smallest expressive opportunity, but also by the engineering that projects a realistic (and thrilling) soundstage that’s as wide as it is deep. Like Haitink, Gilbert has the ability to make well judged and convincing tempo choices. This is especially important in the symphonies of Nielsen. In the first movement of the “Sinfonia espansiva,” for example, there should be a sense of explosive, ecstatic momentum that takes one’s breath away. Play this music too slowly, and it stalls out, turns to sludge. But play it too fast and it becomes hectic, frantic, the very opposite of the vibrant joy the composer means to communicate. Here, as elsewhere, Gilbert’s tempos seem exactly right, urgent without any sense of haste.
Some critics have complained that Gilbert’s otherwise commendable performances lack the kind of white-hot intensity that one associates with Leonard Bernstein. I guess there was no way for a young American-born conductor to take the helm of the New York Philharmonic and not be compared to his celebrated predecessor, but in fact Gilbert’s accounts of these two symphonies compare very well to Bernstein’s. It’s certainly true that Bernstein generates more heat, but there’s much to be said for Gilbert’s lean, athletic approach, his ability to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” (as Muhammad Ali might have put it). What’s never in doubt is Gilbert’s affection for this music. That he was able to communicate that affection to these notoriously obstreperous musicians and transform them into true believers suggests a happy future for his tenure as Music Director. I should add that soprano Erin Morley and tenor Joshua Hopkins bring a sense of serenity and warmth to their wordless arias in the “andante pastorale” of the “Sinfonia espansiva.” In Gilbert’s hands, the dreamy interplay of voices and orchestra is spine tingling, altogether magical.
I haven’t said much about the music itself, but suffice to say that along with Shostakovitch and Sibelius, Nielsen is one of the great symphonists of the 20th Century. If you don’t know these works, these thrilling, gorgeous-sounding performances will provide the perfect introduction. Those already addicted to Nielsen will also find much to enjoy here. Gilbert’s freshness and vitality will make you fall in love with these works all over again. I would once have advised those looking for a complete set of all six symphonies to choose the one by Micheal Schonwandt and the Danish Symphony (currently available on Naxos), but after hearing this, I’d now suggest that you be patient and wait for the remainder of Gilbert’s cycle to appear. Judging from this first installment, it promises to be something very special.