Carl Nielsen: Symphonies 2 and 3
04 March 2013
In fairly short order, since assuming the post of music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2009, Alan Gilbert has committed a number of in-concert programs to disc, including a well-received Mahler Second on SACD, DVD, and Blu-ray. This, however, is his first venture with the orchestra into Nielsen, and, as with the Mahler, it has historical resonance, for the venerable NYPO has long experience in this music under Leonard Bernstein, who was a passionate advocate for both composers. In fact, Bernstein’s recordings of Nielsen’s Second, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies with the orchestra from the 1960s and 1970s are still readily available.
Unless I’m mistaken, Bernstein never got around to recording Nielsen’s First and Sixth Symphonies, and his recording of the Third Symphony was with the Royal Danish Orchestra, not the NYPO. But a long-available four-disc Sony set corrects the omission of the First and Sixth with performances by Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. That same set, however, does include Bernstein and the NYPO’s recordings of Nielsen’s flute and clarinet concertos with Julius Baker and Stanley Drucker, respectively. So, as noted, the orchestra does have a history with Nielsen.
Having the cited Sony set at hand, I decided to compare Bernstein’s reading of the Second Symphony to Gilbert’s on this new Dacapo release. I didn’t compare the two conductors in the Third Symphony because Bernstein’s recording of that score is with a different orchestra. Here are the respective timings:
Symphony No. 2 Bernstein (1973) Gilbert (2011)
1 10:17 10:13
2 5:24 5:08
3 12:15 12:19
4 6:30 6:36
Totals 34:26 34:16
These numbers would appear to reflect a very similar interpretive approach by both conductors, at least insofar as tempos are concerned, with both Bernstein and Gilbert ending up only 10 seconds apart. Of course, there are other factors to consider besides tempo—matters of orchestral discipline and execution, ensemble blending and balance, observance of dynamic and expression markings, fidelity and sonic properties of the recordings, and ultimately, the undefinable elements of character and feeling. Let me take them one by one.
Orchestral discipline and execution: The New York Philharmonic has always been at or very near the top of America’s symphony orchestras, but under Lenny it wasn’t always the most carefully rehearsed or well-disciplined band. You can hear this at the beginning of the last movement of the Second Symphony, marked Allegro sanguineo . The opening bars are tricky, with different sections of the orchestra having conflicting rhythms. In the Bernstein performance, it takes a few measures for things to settle in before one has a sense that it’s all under control. Gilbert’s opening bars have about them a well-drilled exactitude; everything is precisely articulated and in its place. But returning to Bernstein, one hears how he goes for Nielsen’s “sanguine,” for the red-blooded drive of the score. So, I give Bernstein a five on execution but a 10 on excitement, while Gilbert gets a 10 on execution but a seven for his somewhat lower-voltage approach, which is a bit lacking in electricity.
Ensemble blending and balance: Gilbert wins hands down on this one, but in all fairness to Bernstein, his 1973 recording is no match for Dacapo’s superior SACD sound. Some passages in Bernstein’s performance, especially those that are fast and loud, come across as a jumble in which sections of the orchestra and individual instruments are not always easy to sort out. I can’t say that Bernstein was necessarily keener on generating an overall effect than he was on cultivating the niceties of detail, because I suspect that the recording has a lot to do with it. But since it’s the recording I’m using for comparison, Gilbert gets a 10 on this one, while Bernstein gets a five.
Observance of dynamics and expression markings: Here again, I think it’s Bernstein who, though perhaps less scrupulous in following Nielsen’s directions to a tee, takes the composer’s description of the spirit of the music more to heart than he does the specifics of its f s and p s. After all, it was Nielsen who said, “I have tried to sketch a man who storms thoughtlessly forward in the belief that the whole world belongs to him, that fried pigeons will fly into his mouth without work or bother.” Bernstein’s reading sounds freer and uninhibited, compared to Gilbert’s, which sounds more studied and reserved. So here I would give Bernstein a six for meticulous observance of the score and a 10 for capturing its character, while I’d give Gilbert a 10 for dutiful obedience to the score and a seven for seizing its life-force.
In the matter of fidelity and sonic properties of the recordings, there’s simply no contest. The stage depth and breadth of Dacapo’s multichannel recording is awesome, and the engineers have caught the New York Philharmonic on a very good day.
When it comes to the mostly subjective question of how well a performance communicates the emotional content of a work, I would have to say that Bernstein seems to have had more of an affinity for Nielsen’s music than Gilbert presently does. In the Third Symphony’s second movement, by the way, both conductors opt for the composer’s original scoring (as most do) of wordless vocalizations for a solo soprano and baritone, in the absence of which Nielsen allowed for the substitution of an additional clarinet and trombone.
Bernstein, of course, is far from the only alternative to Gilbert. Nielsen’s popularity has steadily increased since the 1960s, such that one now has approximately three-dozen recordings of each of these symphonies to choose from. Long-time favorites on my shelf are complete cycles by Herbert Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on Decca/London and Neeme Järvi with the Gotthenburg Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon. Presently, however, I believe Gilbert’s performances of the Second and Third Symphonies are the only ones available in SACD format.
If my comparison to Bernstein has made this new recording by Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic seem less good than it actually is, it was unintended. Gilbert may not yet be as attuned to Nielsen’s music as other conductors are and have been—Paavo Berglund is another who comes to mind—but this is unquestionably a very fine effort by a young conductor still relatively new to the podium of one of the world’s great orchestras, and a mightily impressive recording. If it’s the beginning of a complete Nielsen cycle, it’s off to a better than good start.