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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Flute Concerto, FS 119 (1926) [18:34]
Clarinet Concerto, FS 129 (1928) [24:10]
Aladdin Suite, FS 89 (1918-19) [26:35]
Samuel Coles (flute); Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. live Royal Festival Hall, London, 19 November 2015 (Flute), 19 May 2016 (Clarinet); Henry Wood Hall, London, 20 May 2016 (Aladdin)

In 2015 I enthusiastically recommended a new recording of Nielsen’s concertos, including the Violin Concerto, with soloists and the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert, as part of their Nielsen series of live performances for Dacapo, and designated it a “Recording of the Month” (review). Thus, I approached this new disc with some trepidation and wondered how it could possibly equal that one. I need not have worried. The two performances here are every bit as superb as the earlier ones and the recorded sound, if anything, is even better.

Samuel Coles, a pupil of James Galway, has been principal flute in the Philharmonia Orchestra since 2011 and is a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He is a true virtuoso with a vibrant tone that never becomes shrill unless the music calls for that piercing quality. What makes this recording outstanding, however, is his obvious rapport with the rest of the orchestra and conductor Paavo Järvi and the clarity of the sound, where the delightful interaction of the flute with the other winds, the timpani, and the bass trombone is present for all to hear. There is almost a chamber-music feel to the recording, rather than just a soloist with the orchestra accompanying. All kinds of detail are heard as never before. For example, in the first movement at 2:35 and again at 2:41 there is a quiet upward string phrase that is noticeable here, whereas in other accounts, including Robert Langevin’s with the New York Philharmonic, you have to strain to hear it. I wasn’t aware of it until I listened to this new recording. There are many such touches throughout that come up fresh here. It is true that the sound of the solo horn may not be as big as Philip Myers’ in the New York performance, or George Curran’s of the important solo bass trombone there, but hornist Nigel Black and bass trombonist David Stewart here are effective in their own right. Black’s trombone smears are as fine as any I have heard.

Mark van de Wiel is equally impressive in the Clarinet Concerto. He is principal clarinet of both the Philharmonia and the London Sinfonietta. He captures the varied spirit of this music at least as well as Anthony McGill in the New York account. McGill produces a slightly warmer, even woodier sound, but when the music calls for some stridency Van de Wiel can scream with the best of them. Again the recorded sound is terrific, with a perfect balance between soloist and the rest of the orchestra, including the all-important snare drum. Both Paavo Järvi and Alan Gilbert seem like natural interpreters of Nielsen and compare well with such native-born Nielsen specialists as Michael Schønwandt and Thomas Dausgaard in this respect. Overall, there is little to choose between these new accounts and the earlier ones on Dacapo.

What most separates this new disc from the Dacapo recording, though, is the coupling. Here I’m afraid Järvi loses out. It is more logical to have all three Nielsen concertos together, even if there are plenty of viable alternatives for the Violin Concerto. Nikolaj Znaider is wonderful exponent of that concerto on the Dacapo disc, as fine as any of the competition and better than most. There are also many recordings of the Aladdin Suite from which to choose, if that is your cup of tea, that are at least as good as Järvi’s.

Nielsen composed over 80 minutes of incidental music for Copenhagen’s 1919 Royal Theatre production of Aladdin, adapted from a story in The Arabian Nights. The composer had misgivings about completing the score in time for the production. He was given rather short notice, yet he did complete it with the help of a former pupil. The whole score has rarely been recorded, but the suite he adapted from it turned out to be one of his most popular, if unrepresentative, compositions. It is available on disc in a number of compilations of his much better tone poems and orchestral excerpts from his two operas. The Aladdin Suite is probably my least favourite Nielsen work with its exoticism seemingly foreign to the composer’s nature. It begins promisingly with a powerful Oriental Festival March, but by the end of the seven movements I have had more than enough of the suite’s exoticism. Järvi’s account is certainly good, but the sound he is given here seems diffuse compared to that for the concertos. The production team is the same, but the venue is different and that may explain the inferior recording. If you want a more forceful and colourful interpretation in superb sound, I would go with Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony’s recording on Decca that includes the optional wordless chorus in the ‘Marketplace in Ispahan’—the most complex part of the work—and the final ‘Negro Dance’.

I will definitely keep this CD for the two concertos, but would recommend the New York Philharmonic/Gilbert recording as a first choice for all three Nielsen concertos. Signum has done its part in providing a first-class product in its presentation. In addition to a very attractive cover, the booklet contains detailed and insightful notes by Nordic music specialist, Andrew Mellor, several colour photos, and a listing of the orchestra members.

Leslie Wright



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