Carl Nielsen: Symphonies 2 and 3
28 January 2013
American Record Guide
This begins a series of Carl Nielsen recordings with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Leonard Bernstein seemed bent on one after he and the orchestra brought Nielsen to the attention of America with their stunning Fifth Symphony, but his next Nielsen recording—the Third—was with the Royal Danish Symphony. He and New York went on to record the Second and Fourth, but the electricity of the earlier recordings had dissipated, though they did better with their recordings of the Flute and Clarinet Concertos. What is interesting here is that the Philharmonic was engaged by a Danish company that already has a set of Nielsen symphonies in its catalog (Michael Schoenwandt and the Danish National Symphony).
I didn’t have to listen long to the Third Symphony to see why Dacapo chose this orchestra and conductor for another go-round. These magisterial, even aristocratic performances bring out the regal side of Nielsen. They are serious, straightforward, and direct, with squared-up rhythm, yet there is no lack of energy and flow. The orchestral sound is powerful, dark, and almost plush without the usual brilliance of the Scandinavians. To say that an orchestra sounds like an expensive luxury car with power in reserve is not always a compliment, but this time it is. The NY Philharmonic has had its ups and downs over the years, but when engaged as it is here, it is a remarkable group.
The weighty, slightly slow stuttering chords that open the Third set the tone for the interpretation. Climaxes are never forced. The Philharmonic trombones blast away in some performances, but not there. Gilbert and his players inject energy and life into the rhythmic sections and produce wonderful lyricism when called for. If there is an academic quality to Nielsen’s writing in the canonic passages, the sweep of the playing overcomes it. The string opening to II is mysterious and velvety, the tricky hook at the end of the phrases is naturally produced, and the winds handle their solos with panache. Both vocalists are blended into the texture, and the flute and brass chorale near the end is gorgeous. III opens with a slight and very apt touch of noble rawness in the horns, and everything that follows is up to the level of what came before. If I have to quibble about something, it might be that the oboe solos are a bit more mannered than ones from the other winds. The sweeping tune of IV is warm, and if slightly slow, it doesn’t feel slow.
The Second Symphony (Four Temperaments) is cast along the same lines. That could be a problem in a symphony whose four movements each represent a temperament, but if there is a sameness to the movements, it emerges from a solid emotional core. The approach convinces us because of its energy, power, masterly playing, and the authority of its execution. The opening gets on with it, the transition to the second subject is smooth, and the development meets its rigorous passages head on. II flows like a river to a well-controlled climax. III is serenity disturbed. IV is heavyish but lively and in its way relentless but not overbearing (these performances never are). The lighter section is a portrait of agility executed by a powerful orchestra.
The rich, dark recording is not the last word in detail, but it’s clear enough as it mimics a seat somewhat to the back of the hall.
Danish orchestras have a magical way with Nielsen that enlivens his saddest moments. I suspect that is one reason why the old recordings by Erik Tuxen and Thomas Jensen are so admired (though I don’t know them well). Herbert Blomstedt’s first big Nielsen set with the Danish Radio Symphony has that quality, even if its execution and (especially) the sound do not compare with his later set of astute and dramatic readings with the San Francisco Symphony. The Danish National Symphony is one reason I like the Schoenwandt set (an affinity not shared by all critics). I’ve heard good things about Thomas Dausgaard’s Nielsen with the same orchestra, including a recording of the Third; a symphony set from him would be interesting. Alas, even the Danish Radio Symphony cannot save the turgid conducting of Rozdestvensky. From Sweden we get fiery and energetic performances of Symphonies 2 and 3 by Myung-Wung Chung and the Gothenburg Symphony. Other performances worth considering are the Second with Morton Gould, which I have not heard in many years, the exuberant Bernstein Third (even if the finale is slow), and the exciting if a bit raw Third with Berglund. I’ve not been that impressed with the Nielsen of Bostock and Vanska.
Having written all that, I would not be without this newcomer from New York. I look forward to the rest of the series with great interest.