Recording of the Month
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1901-02) [35:08]
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Espansiva (1910-11) [37:15]
Erin Morley (soprano), Joshua Hopkins (baritone)
New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert
rec. live, Avery Fisher Hall, NY, 27-29 January and 1 February 2011 (2); 14-16 June 2012 (3).
DACAPO SACD HYBRID 6.220623 [72:23]
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. Nielsenís 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 According to my unpublished Carl Nielsen discography, Alan Gilbert is embarking on the twentieth recorded symphony cycle.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 Gilbertís charismatic predecessor, Leonard Bernstein, began in 1962 but did not complete. According to many reviewers Bernsteinís Fifth with the NYPO for the CBS label (review) 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 Nielsenís 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 ďfelled the composerís critics and detractorsĒ 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.
Letís 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 Nielsenís Espansiva. This optimism is a welcome antidote in these days of wars, racism, scandals and economic turbulence. I firmly believe that Nielsenís first, third and sixth symphonies are profoundly biographical; in 1911 the Third expresses the triumph of Nielsenís 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 labelís astute strategy with my remote control by starting on track five with Symphony No. 2. This music is stylistically paired with Nielsenís opera, Saul and David both works from the composerís ďpsychological periodĒ. 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 Ė and does Ė 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 Kettingís 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 composerís 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 Nielsenís 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 Ė the irregular pulse, the objective subjectivity, the revolutionary conformity Ė but Alan Gilbert, NYPhilís 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 ďauthenticĒ 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 Nielsenís 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 Gilbertís inevitable PR claims - is in line with rivals including Sir Colin Davisí symphony cycle with the London Symphony: also on SACD Ė 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 JanŠcek 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 Kucharís 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 Nielsenís 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 Nielsenís 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 Bostockís interpretations. Vols 1Ė4 on the ClassicO label have been favourably reviewed by me for MWI. If the editor permits, I can complete the job delayed by the labelís commercial problems: Bostockís 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 criticsí benchmark Nielsen symphony cycles. Michael SchÝnwandt and the Danish National [formerly ďRadioĒ] Symphony Orchestra; these performances are issued on a choice of DVD and budget CD issues and collections (review). The other criticsí benchmark is on Decca. Herbert Blomstedtís 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, letís 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 SmorrbrÝd when I saw on my hostís TV set, the taped black and white filmed concert from 1965 was being broadcast: Bernsteinís 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.
I thus felt deprived for years, but not any longer. Gilbertís 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, Dacapoís well-equipped and intelligent engineers capture for posterity in concert hall conditions the inner detail and dynamics. Now we can hear Nielsenís complex layering: itís more Wagnerian than Brahms but no, itís just more Nielsen than before.
In the engineersí attempt to achieve Demonstration Stereo and the conductorís attempt to penetrate the music deeply, there is no artifice, no mannered or gimmicky tricks. Sample Nielsenís 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 Internationalís Recording of the Month. It is an essential purchase which will delight you. I donít 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, itís good to experience Nielsenís ďhymn to the joy of workĒ now available in its fullness. Itís one of the finest CDs ever produced Ö period.
Performances and the sound of a lifetime.