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CD Review

Carl Nielsen

Complete Symphonies & Concertos

  • Symphony #1 in G minor, Op. 7 (CNW 25)
  • Symphony #2 "The Four Temperaments", Op. 16 (CNW 26)
  • Symphony #3 "Sinfonia espansiva", Op. 27 (CNW 27) *
  • Symphony #4 "The Inextinguishable", Op. 29 (CNW 28)
  • Symphony #5, Op. 50 (CNW 29)
  • Symphony #6 "Sinfonia semplice" (CNW 30)
  • Concerto for Violin & Orchestra, Op. 33 (CNW 41) 2
  • Concerto for Flute & Orchestra, (CNW 42) 3
  • Concerto for Clarinet & Orchestra, Op. 57 (CNW 43) 4
* Erin Morley, soprano
* Joshua Hopkins, baritone
Nikolaj Znaider, violin
Robert Langevin, flute
Anthony McGill, clarinet
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Alan Gilbert
Recorded Live at Avery Fisher Hall, New York January 27-29, & February 1, 2011 (#2); June 14-16, 2012 (#3); March 12-15, 2014 (#1 & 4); October 10-13, 2014 (#5 & 6); October 10-13, 2012 (Violin & Flute Concertos); January 7-10, 2015 (Clarinet Concerto)
Dacapo 6.200003 4SACDs 4:50:24
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If I have to characterize Gilbert's approach in these live performances of the Nielsen symphonies and concertos, I would say he is very energetic and muscular, alert to meaningful detail and quite proficient at obtaining proper instrumental balances. Gilbert's readings are never unexciting or dull in any way: the dramatic, climactic passages have plenty of impact and spirit, and everything else comes across convincingly. In general, he is fairly objective and straightforward in his interpretations, not given to wringing out emotional flourishes or grandiose moments unless the score calls for them – and in Nielsen's music, you rarely find anything even remotely approaching excess or garishness. True, the drum duel in the finale of the Fourth and the warring snare drum in the second half of the first movement of the Fifth might suggest otherwise, but I've found even these moments not quite over the top.

The mostly joyous and youthful First Symphony is lively and bright here throughout, with utterly splendid accounts of the outer movements. Gilbert almost does the logically impossible – making the symphony sound better than it is. Well, he's at least raised my opinion of the work. The Second begins with both an energetic and muscular first movement, detail emerging clearly. In many ways this is a template for how Gilbert conducts much of the music in the set. The second movement is played very elegantly and has rarely sounded so ingratiating. The third movement is paced rather slowly, but Gilbert's deft manipulation of dynamics and accents garners a tense and angst-filled expressive yield. The finale is played vigorously and with great spirit to crown this excellent rendition of the Nielsen Second.

The Third begins energetically and the sense of conflict, a seemingly ever-present element in Nielsen's symphonies, develops with brawn and urgency, and the often complex orchestration emerges clearly. The development section is a good example of how deftly Gilbert delineates textures and draws out proper instrumental balances: when the main waltz theme returns proudly and defiantly you hear more meaningful detail here than in most other recordings, particularly from the brass. Gilbert finds the right mixture of the pastoral and restive in the second movement and the singers, soprano Erin Morley and baritone Joshua Hopkins, turn in splendid work in their brief wordless vocal roles. The last two movements come across convincingly as well, with the finale sounding very stately, almost Brahmsian in places. And, especially near the ending, do we hear a few strains of Elgar? Again, the New York Philharmonic plays splendidly throughout.

Gilbert's account of the Fourth features a fairly brisk and spirited first movement, but the remaining three are paced rather moderately. Actually the Adagio third movement tends slightly toward the slow side, though there is plenty of intensity and spirit in the reading. After the grim struggles early on in the finale the symphony concludes with a vibrant sense of triumph with the return of the all-conquering main theme. Overall, Gilbert's "Inextinguishable" is one of the most convincing accounts on record, not least because of the fine effort by his New York Philharmonic players.

The Fifth is on the same level: the first movement's struggles between peace and war are fully convincing and powerfully conveyed. Try the dramatic buildup near the end of the first movement and notice the intensity when the insistent snare drum attempts to derail the orchestra from achieving peace. The dark music in the Andante poco tranquillo section of the second movement brims with tension and sorrow, the New York Philharmonic strings playing with all-out passion. The triumph at the end is hard won and powerful.

The humorous and sarcastic Sixth gets another fine performance here, with imaginative and incisive phrasing by Gilbert and spirited playing by the orchestra. The symphony is a real challenge to bring off: you can view it as witty if somewhat sardonic, or you can see it as cynical and play up its deliberate contradictions. I think Gilbert plays into both views, giving the music some muscle and acid in the long first movement but often contrasting these qualities with a sense of playfulness or even elegance in quieter sections. He definitely turns toward humor in the mischievous Humoresque, getting splendid efforts from the winds and percussion. You might chuckle here, as Gilbert fashions the closest thing to slapstick in music that I've heard in a long time. The ensuing Adagio is dark but elegantly played and the enigmatic theme and variations finale remains a bit inscrutable, though Gilbert draws out exciting playing as he traipses through a mine field of pranks and disruptive passages planted by the composer. A fine rendition of this puzzling work.

The concerto performances in this set display many of the same qualities heard in the symphonies, and I suspect the interpretations, at least in the case of the flute and violin concertos, are fashioned with a little more input from the conductor than is usually the case. Why? The two soloists in these works are NY Philharmonic members, flutist Robert Langevin and clarinetist Anthony McGill: I'll surmise they would have been a little more open to suggestions regarding interpretation by their conductor than if they were touring soloists with a solid career. Maybe I'm wrong, but their performances seem to fit the mold here.

For that matter, Znaider's account of the Violin Concerto fits in well too, though he has his own individual style: he really digs in and attacks the opening cadenza with gusto and clean technique, and thereafter captures the various shifting moods in the long first movement and remaining two panels (18:43) with a good sense for Nielsen's rather unorthodox manner. Znaider displays a wide range of dynamics and can play with elegance, virtuosity and a good lyrical sense. In the end, he turns in a deftly imagined and well played account of this concerto. Not that Langevin and McGill don't have something of substance to say: Langevin is very subtle and plays with all manner of nuance in dynamics and phrasing; and McGill so perfectly captures Nielsen's quirky style and he too is quite subtle – try his first movement cadenza and notice how he deftly combines the sense of playfulness and mystery. All three concertos are well played by soloists and orchestra then, with Gilbert continuing to show that he is one of the foremost interpreters of Nielsen's music on the scene.

I should mention that Gilbert's SACDs are coupled thusly: Symphonies 3 & 2 (disc 1); #4 & 1 (disc 2); #5 & 6 (disc 3); and the concertos (disc 4). This order was chosen because the symphonies were performed live at Avery Fisher Hall in that order, and the concertos were wisely placed on a separate disc even though some were performed before the last two volumes of the symphonies. In the June update I reviewed the Colin Davis set of Nielsen symphonies (LSO Live LSO0789) and found it reasonably successful, but a bit controversial owing to the conductor's fast tempos, particularly in the Fourth. Well, Gilbert's set will generate no such stir, as his timings are mostly middle of the road. For example, his Fourth clocks in at 35:57 compared with Davis' extremely fleet 31:13. Davis is also significantly faster in the Second, Third and Fifth. Still, he was generally very convincing, but if I had to choose between these two sets, I'd go with Gilbert as he is more consistent and never wayward, plus you get the three concertos in splendid performances. Fine sound and excellent album notes round out this Dacapo release. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings