Carl Nielsen: Symphonies 2 and 3
11 October 2012
There’s an authenticity and a basic belief in human goodness that underlies most of Carl Nielsen’s (1865-1931) compositions, one of many reasons why he’s Denmark’s greatest symphonist. Perhaps his basic optimism comes from his humble beginnings: he was the seventh of twelve children born to a mother who sang and a father who played violin and cornet in the village band. Although he lived through the horror of World War I, and was deeply affected by it, Nielsen never lost hope that mankind would overcome its struggle against darkness. His symphonies recreate that struggle, but the light of hope usually triumphs.
Nielsen’s music represents a path out of the angst-ridden German romanticism of the late nineteenth century. Using the clarity of the classical era, he stripped away the heavy textures of late romanticism and replaced them with light and spacious ones. He infused drama into his works by expanding the use of percussive and wind instruments. Silence in the orchestral tapestry
became a powerful theatrical punctuation. By using progressive tonality (ending in a different key than the beginning), polytonality (the simultaneous use of two keys), Nielsen creates a sense of momentum, drama and expressivity that departs from the late Romantic tradition without losing its emotional impact. He is a modern composer with heart.
Although Nielsen tried to downplay the significance of the title of the Second Symphony, “Four Temperaments” before he died, the work was inspired by four paintings which describe the Greek temperaments – choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine, one of which dominates each individual personality. Gilbert’s expansive interpretation emphasizes dramatic differences between sections and movements by highlighting tempi fluctuations. In the first movement, Nielsen’s use of silence to punctuate drama is somewhat mitigated by over-reverberant sound which obscures the sharp cadences and some orchestral detail, especially in the lower bass lines. Here the SACD sound diminishes clarity at the expense of capturing the “hall sound” of a recording. Nevertheless, Gilbert’s performance is emotionally riveting: a dramatic and vital first movement; the plaintive solemnity of the second, the heartfelt nobility of the third and a buoyantly optimistic finale.
The more reflective and broadly philosophical nature of the Third Symphony, “Sinfonia Espansiva,” lends itself well to the Gilbert’s lyrical and flowing treatment. The reverberant sound here is more appropriate, especially in Nielsen’s ethereal use of a wordless soprano and tenor in the second movement, which often gets lost in live performances. The gorgeous second movement is especially effective because of Gilbert’s lighter, emotionally generous viewpoint, and the third movement is happily evocative of a dance that celebrates life. The majesty of the final movement – a paean to Nielsen’s love of nature and life, is triumphantly expressed. Gilbert’s performance is magnificent and, here, the SACD sound is perfectly judged and appropriate.
These symphonies are two of the greatest that the twentieth century has to offer, so a hearty recommendation for Nielsen’s Third, and slightly less exuberant endorsement for the sound and interpretation of the Second.