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Dacapo - The National Music Anthology of Denmark

Format:  SACD

Catalogue Number:  6.220623

Barcode:  747313162369

Release month:  Sep 2012

Period:  Early 20th Century


Carl Nielsen: Symphonies 2 and 3

10 October 2012  Cinemusical
4/4 Stars

For whatever reason, the music of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) seems to resonate less with American audiences than say the work of Grieg or Sibelius. Nielsen’s straddling of the century-mark also makes his pigeon-holing for musicologists difficult as his earlier work certainly belongs to late-period Romanticism while those from the last 30 years make for an increasing variety of unique modernist twists. Still, he is regarded as one of the great symphonists of the early 20th Century.

Nielsen wrote six symphonies between 1894 and 1924. The second through fourth symphonies all bear descriptive titles, though these are not necessarily “programmatic,” and tend to be the most commonly recorded. One of the last memorable survey’s of Nielsen symphonies was by the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt whose coupling of the second and third symphonies is paralleled in the present release. The New York Philharmonic programmed these same works under Leonard Bernstein in the 1960s and early 1970s so Alan Gilbert’s decision to revisit these works nearly 40 years later is more than appropriate. Bernstein’s performance of the third symphony, recorded in Denmark, were of historically memorable proportions and no doubt cast their shadow across time through the resulting recording on Columbia. Gilbert’s performances in both works are slightly longer and his timings in the outer movements run about a minute more than Blomstedt or Bernstein. His temperament may also be less manic if the slightly longer playing times of the movements for the second symphony are an indication of his interpretation. However, all the more impressive given the results is these performances are patched together from live concerts recorded during the orchestra’s 2011 and 2012 concert seasons.

The second symphony’s title ”The Four Temperaments” comes from the Greek philosopher Hippocrates who posited a theory about the four “temperaments” of man and which was subsequently developed by Galen. Nielsen’s inspiration came from a picture hanging in an inn where he and his wife stopped in for a beer. The work was composed in 1901-1902 and displays the transition from Brahms-ian Romanticism into Nielsen’s unique musical language. Each movement bears a descriptive tempo designation to represent each of the four temperaments: collerico, flemmatico, malincolico (sic), and sanguineo. On display in the work, apart from rather interesting musical depictions, is Nielsen’s interesting harmonic usage that often moves into areas that are unusual and generally unexpected. Listen in this symphony especially to the way Gilbert moves from those huge rich orchestral moments to more sparsely-orchestrated solo sections which allows the ensemble to show off players individually and as larger units. The strings too bring a special edge to the intensity of the first movement. The symphony received a few performances in Europe but really did not appear much until the 1960s when the composer’s work was being re-evaluated historically.

The Symphony No. 3, Op. 27 (“Sinfonia Espansiva”) was composed between 1910-1911 and premiered in 1912. The piece would bring Nielsen more international attention. Its descriptive title was initially used for the first movement but within a couple months of the premiere it had moved to appellate the entire work. Nielsen’s thematic ideas tend to grow organically out of his musical textures in often surprisingly beautiful ways. The opening movement features a primary melodic idea that moves through a variation technique with many surprising rich harmonic ideas that provide interest along the way. The application of this sort of thematic transformation and the somewhat Romantic sound of the orchestration is a likely nod to Brahms, one of Nielsen’s favorite composers. The second movement is a pastorale that in a slower tempo illustrates the way the composer likes to slowly build into his melodic material. In this case, we have a symphonic depiction of the natural world with ideas that tend to have an almost melancholy feel further enhanced by the appearance of vocalises by soprano and baritone solos (an idea that would be used similarly by Swedish composer Hugo Alfven in his fourth symphony composed some 8 years later). It is the emotional heart of this work. The final movement moves through gorgeously huge orchestral passages and more subtle solo lines and it receives a superbly engaging and exciting performance that builds beautifully in its final moments.

Though the days when the country looked to the New York Philharmonic as its premiere orchestra have somewhat waned, Alan Gilbert has continued to work to lift this ensemble back to the national and international reputation that it certainly deserves. His performances here are simply masterful and the orchestra has never sounded better. The relaxed atmosphere of these performances brings an almost innate joy in the music making that result in fabulous performances. The engineers have also managed to make the most of the location giving the orchestra proper balance and imaging that can sometimes be lost in Avery Fisher Hall. The result is that rather than lines blurring together—commonly an issue in Blomstedt’s performances, they are more distinct here. One can only hope that his Nielsen cycle continues to bring to disc the same level of intensity and musicianship that has always made the NY Philharmonic one of our finest ensembles and reminds the world that this is a first class orchestra! 

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