Carl Nielsen: Symphonies 2 and 3
23 October 2012
With the exception of the Symphony No. 4 ("The Inextinguishable") and perhaps the Symphony No. 5, Carl Nielsen's symphonies have been rare finds in American symphonic recording catalogs. Leonard Bernstein programmed them occasionally, and perhaps that was the inspiration for the New York Philharmonic and conductor Alan Gilbert with this intriguing release. The reverse chronological order -- the Symphony No. 3 dates from 1912, ten years after its predecessor -- works well, for the Symphony No. 3 is the weightier work. Nielsen did not see fit to explain the work's "Sinfonia Espansiva" subtitle, but the work certainly is expansive, with a great variety of orchestral tones and an eerie wordless vocal duet that comes in toward the end of the second movement. The New York Philharmonic may have had its problems in recent years, and what was once the flagship American orchestra has recorded rather sparsely. But they sound terrific here. The real highlight is the Symphony No. 2, which neatly merges Nielsen's big symphonic idiom with the flair for comic drama he showed in the opera Maskarade. The work is subtitled "The Four Temperaments," referring to the medieval temperaments or humors: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine, and it was originally inspired by a comic painting Nielsen saw in a bar. Gilbert realizes each of these as a sort of individual character, and there's quite a bit of humor scattered around the piece if you listen for it. The work is also linked by one of Nielsen's characteristic long-range devices: instead of outlining a central tonality, the keys of each movement form a sort of giant progression. With Dacapo's typically clear sound, this is a fine addition to symphonic libraries.