Carl Nielsen: Symphonies 2 and 3
12 October 2012
This artistic triumph is the first instalment of The Carl Nielsen Project - a Danish-American enterprise following the new Carl Nielsen Edition. The Project has involved hundreds of people, over many disciplines, and emerges on disc after two years of preparation. Nielsen’s Violin and Flute Concertos are scheduled along with all six symphonies. According to my unpublished Carl Nielsen discography, Alan Gilbert is embarking on the twentieth recorded symphony cycle. On the evidence of this issue, New York has a project on course to accomplish a mission that Gilbert’s charismatic predecessor, Leonard Bernstein, began in 1962 but did not complete. According to many reviewers Bernstein’s Fifth with the NYPO for the CBS label was one of the most incandescent performances ever committed to disc.
For the reader in a hurry, Dacapo delivers the performance and the sound of a lifetime. The sound is monumental in scale and magnificent in fine detail; it is natural and smooth rather than etched despite its clean and clear transients.
The NY Phil is a powerful orchestra and Nielsen is an energetic composer. Alan Gilbert interprets Nielsen’s Third Symphony in a way I have never heard before and it is a reading which makes it seem inevitable and insightful. I will now support my strong advice to buy this recording and try to position it with its rivals in the following appraisal.
An award-winning cover design in an enhanced jewel box immediately communicates the feel of a premium product. The documentation and stimulating expertise of the sleeve-notes by Knud Ketting continue to set the high tone of this transatlantic, bilingual (Danish-American) project.
Strategically, the disc opens with Symphony No. 3, the work which in 1911 “felled the composer’s critics and detractors” and firmly placed Carl Nielsen as a world-class symphonist. Espansiva is still admired as a masterpiece and receives many successful live and studio recordings, but I was unprepared for this very pleasant surprise from Mr Gilbert.
Let’s deal first with the engineering: it is the servant of the music but here the stereo is a sensuous experience in its own right! Never before on disc have I heard layering and inner detail which the conductor here elicits and the musicians contribute. It all adds up to the overwhelming triumph and sense of achievement which is the autobiographical content and essence of Nielsen’s Espansiva. This optimism is a welcome antidote in these days of wars, racism, scandals and economic turbulence. I firmly believe that Nielsen’s first, third and sixth symphonies are profoundly biographical; in 1911 the Third expresses the triumph of Nielsen’s personal and musical struggle. That said, within three years, art nouveau had died; his career, his marriage and his country were plunged into destructive despair as portrayed by the Fourth and Fifth symphonies.
On this disc we start with the earlier and more innocent world. I circumvented the label’s astute strategy with my remote control by starting on track five with Symphony No. 2. This music is stylistically paired with Nielsen’s opera, Saul and David both works from the composer’s “psychological period”. Here Carl Nielsen depicts the moods or human temperaments in four symphonic movements. He himself wrote the often recycled and corny programme notes; I suspect that then, as now, the marketing people encouraged it. Today, poor Mr Gilbert is dragged in front of a camera for YouTube when his work should – and does – speak for itself. Nielsen regretted listeners interpreting music as anything other than independent music. He said the programme was a private matter between himself and his music, as quoted in Ketting’s notes. On the basis of this disc, I feel Mr Gilbert agrees. Some listeners may prefer the expression of the moods as the distinction and essence of the symphony, and the composer’s true intention.
You can guess why the audience is totally quiet. I suspect that, like me, they were stunned.
The New York Philharmonic is an orchestra well-suited to Nielsen’s humanist idiom, which is often described as fresh, independent and homespun. The orchestra is also a powerful instrument but equally capable of the reflective introspection Nielsen sometimes slips into his music. Many great conductors have slipped on Nielsen, failing to grasp his many contradictions – the irregular pulse, the objective subjectivity, the revolutionary conformity – but Alan Gilbert, NYPhil’s musical director since September 2009, delivers his promise of a fresh approach. It is one which proves to be most insightful, successful and even disturbing. It opens doors.
As stated, perhaps in Symphony No. 2, while enjoying the highest musical standards, one misses that absurd and exaggerated programme, the portraits of four extreme facets of human personality. The distinctive Danish sound is nowhere to be heard but the trend in recent performances is to leave behind this soundworld time-locked in the “authentic” recordings in which the Danish orchestras purport to follow the sound Nielsen himself achieved conducting his own works.
Leaping above and beyond this is a greater achievement, and perhaps this was the intention of this enlightened Danish record label. For sure, Gilbert sets out to find in Nielsen’s symphonies a universal or international musical document. I cannot dispute its success; there is not a dull moment. The trend away from the Nordic/Danish accent - despite Gilbert’s inevitable PR claims - is in line with rivals including Sir Colin Davis’ symphony cycle with the London Symphony: also on SACD – but here I took issue with truly great performances diminished by less than transparent recordings. Reissued this month is the remarkable 3-CD symphony cycle which Theodore Kuchar and the Janácek Orchestra recorded in 2005 in the Czech Republic for Brilliant Classics (review). Still at bargain price, and from 2012 attractively presented, I confess that I had ignored it until encouraged to unwrap the cellophane by a MusicWeb International reader. Suffice to say that Kuchar’s Nielsen is both a bargain and a top flight performance of all six symphonies. The engineering is first class; the sound is transparent, dynamic and natural. The performances establish the new, modern, international sound of Carl Nielsen in contrast to the Danish feel and the limiting extra-musical meanings which can be a comfortable paradigm from which we may not escape.
A valid alternative to both extreme views of Nielsen’s symphonies is found by Douglas Bostock and the Liverpool Philharmonic (review). Bostock participated in Nielsen seminars, studying his life and work, and like the composer himself, purposefully lacks vanity or pomposity. This may be why he grasps Nielsen’s character (the fifth temperament?) arguably better than any of his rivals, including conductors born in Denmark. Thus the biographical symphonies - One, Three and Six - are very revealing in Bostock’s interpretations. Vols 1–4 on the ClassicO label have been favourably reviewed by me for MWI. If the editor permits, I can complete the job delayed by the label’s commercial problems: Bostock’s Complete Nielsen Orchestral Music has now been completed by the final disc issued by CD Klassisk taking the collection in eight CDs, for sale separately - not currently available as a set.
At present Dacapo-Naxos own one of the two critics’ benchmark Nielsen symphony cycles. Michael Schønwandt and the Danish National [formerly “Radio”] Symphony Orchestra; these performances are issued on a choice of DVD and budget CD issues and collections (review). The other critics’ benchmark is on Decca. Herbert Blomstedt’s second and superior CD cycle featuring the San Francisco Orchestra (review). Each time I return to it, I agree with the majority view.
To return to the new issue, and study the superiority, let’s focus on the performance of the Sinfonia Espansiva after just one more reflection on possible competition. In 1965, Leonard Bernstein visited Copenhagen, and conducted the Royal Danish Orchestra in the Sinfonia Espansiva in concert and in the studio. The concert created a sensation which the PR guys quoted on the discs. However the performance of the Third Symphony is not as incandescent as the Danish critics said, nor up to the Fifth (review). The explanation emerged when I was invited to dinner in a Danish home. I almost dropped my herring and Smorrbrød when I saw on my host’s TV set, the taped black and white filmed concert from 1965 was being broadcast: Bernstein’s concert performance was electric! It subsequently emerged that rights are owned by Danish Radio and have never been licensed for issue on CD or video. Doubtless some bootleg private copies exist.
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
I thus felt deprived for years, but not any longer. Gilbert’s is quite certainly the Nielsen Third Symphony on disc despite many distinguished rivals. The conductor delivers an approach which is not only fresh but innovative, inspiring and insightful. The phrasing, the dynamics, the restraint where called for, usher in one pleasurable insight after another. Thankfully, unlike the London SACDs mentioned above, Dacapo’s well-equipped and intelligent engineers capture for posterity in concert hall conditions the inner detail and dynamics. Now we can hear Nielsen’s complex layering: it’s more Wagnerian than Brahms but no, it’s just more Nielsen than before.
In the engineers’ attempt to achieve Demonstration Stereo and the conductor’s attempt to penetrate the music deeply, there is no artifice, no mannered or gimmicky tricks. Sample Nielsen’s inspired introduction of wordless human voices: in other issues the singers are showcased to the left and right loudspeakers, prominently, or in a contrasting off stage acoustic; these are gimmicks or artistic experiments.
This Symphony No. 3 is simply the most authoritative, penetrating and fresh recording available today. It is free of any shortcomings or mannerisms. Everybody contributes the best of his and her ability and experience, from the sleeve-notes and the back-room boys to the project leader Mr Alan Gilbert who should be awarded Danish National honours. The disc should receive MusicWeb International’s Recording of the Month. It is an essential purchase which will delight you. I don’t think that this great Nielsen man and his team are going to disappoint us in the next parts of the Nielsen Project. I can hardly wait.
Give your Hi-Fi a blowout and your ears a treat. In these gloomy times, it’s good to experience Nielsen’s “hymn to the joy of work” now available in its fullness. It’s one of the finest CDs ever produced … period.