Listeners with really long musical memories might recall the Nielsen boom of the 1960s, or at least some of the recordings that came out of it. Leonard Bernstein seems to have kicked it off internationally with a recording of the Fifth Symphony in the early 1960s which was so exciting that it was much written about and programmed on the radio, hooking a lot of listeners. When he followed through with an equally stunning recorded account of the Third Symphony a few years later, the name of a composer previously rather obscure outside of his native Denmark became well-known, and before long conductors like Ormandy, Kletzki, Morton Gould and especially Jascha Horenstein began filling the catalogue with new recordings of his work, some of them revelatory.
CARL NIELSEN: Symphony No.3 (‘Sinfonia Espansiva’), Symphony No.2 (‘The Four Temperaments’). New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Dacapo CD or download.
But unlike the vogue for the music of Mahler and Ives that began during the same decade, Nielsen's popularity did not last. Some fine recordings of the symphonies and concertos did appear, notably a series of the six symphonies by Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony, but few had the voltage of those pioneering Bernstein and Horenstein versions.
This new recording of the Third Symphony by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic has the same electrifying power that Bernstein and the same orchestra found in it almost 50 years ago. The symphony, like Beethoven's Eroica, starts off with an explosive chord that is repeated not once, as with the Beethoven, but repeatedly, like a percussive tattoo, launching a movement that is one of the masterpieces of 20th-century symphonic literature. This initial outburst is followed by impassioned music whose feeling of upward striving is as powerfully projected here as it is in Bernstein's performance, with the NYP brass playing like superstars.
Around the midpoint of the movement a simple rising-falling theme, first heard right after the violent opening chords, is developed into a waltz, first played liltingly by small forces, later with whirlwind force by the full orchestra. Gilbert makes this passage especially arresting by strongly accenting the first beat of each bar, to thrilling effect.
This movement works best when a kind of peasant-music roughness that can often be heard in Nielsen's music is brought out, and Gilbert makes sure that it registers here at full strength.
The tranquillity of the following Andante pastorale, which the composer, according to Knud Ketting's liner notes to this release, intended to evoke "the peace and calm of nature", and here the emotional turbulence of the first movement is dispelled from the rest of the symphony. Gilbert captures the sounds and moods of Nielsen's landscape nicely until the point near the conclusion where two vocal soloists, "heard from afar", sing wordlessly. But here the two singers, Erin Morley and Joshua Hopkins, seem far too close, and their vibrato-rich, conservatory-trained voices don't really mesh with the birdsongs and rural atmosphere the orchestra has conjured.
The remaining two movements come off beautifully here, with the brief scherzo building playfully and excitingly throughout (the fugal passage beginning at around 2:00 spins off with infectious energy), and the finale, with its long-lined, flowing theme, intended by the composer, according to Ketting's note, to express "the healthy morality inherent in the blessing of work" achieving real nobility here.
Gilbert plays it more broadly than either Bernstein or Blomstedt, the only other recorded versions that I have heard, and gives it the weight it needs to balance the magnificent opening movement, or, at least, almost. In his hands it feels too spiritual to represent only the morality inherent in work, it seems to go deeper.
But then again, Nielsen warned against taking the programmes attached to abstract musical forms like the symphony too seriously. He insisted the "the art of music cannot express anything conceptual", and would have take a dim view of anyone who looked too hard for precise correlations between the titles of the movements of his Second Symphony, The Four Temperaments, and their musical content.
The episodes that disrupt the lyrical theme heard at the beginning of the opening Allegro collerico can sound more like the mood swings of a hyperexcitable, impetuous mind than as the anger identified in the movement's title, for example, and the outcries that rend the darkly reflective Andante malincolico seem closer to outright despair than melancholy.
But the core of the symphony is pure emotion and, as the composer insisted, paying too much attention to the labels is not the best way to find a way into the work. The performance here is the finest that I have heard since my previous personal favourite, Thomas Jenson's monaural recording with the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra on the Dutton label. Gilbert takes consistently broader tempos than Jensen, very much to the music's advantage, especially in the two middle movements.
These two performances show Alan Gilbert to be a superb Nielsen interpreter. In an ideal world he would follow this release with recordings of the other four symphonies. It is tantalising to think what he might do with the battlefield drama of the Fifth's first movement or the bitterly jokey surrealism of the Sixth's opening Tempo giusto.
My iTunes download of the music sounded very good indeed, but those who invest in the Dacapo CD probably won't regret it.
About the author
- Writer: Ung-Aang Talay