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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Violin Concerto (1911-12) [36:23]
Flute Concerto (1926) [18:02]
Clarinet Concerto (1928) [25:22]
Malin Broman (violin)
Anders Jonhäll (flute)
Andreas Sundén (clarinet)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Joana Carneiro, Philip von Steinecker, Juraj Valčuha
rec. live, 2015, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm
DAPHNE 1056 [79:49]

Nielsen's concertos are among his most important works, although the earliest, for violin, was long undervalued before a spate of recordings by high-profile soloists corrected this. The concertos for flute and clarinet date from Nielsen's full maturity and are among his greatest works. I would go further and suggest that the clarinet concerto is one of the most profound of 20th-century concertos for any instrument. Perhaps equally contentious is my feeling that few composers since Mozart have shown such consummate understanding of the character of each wind instrument.

The Violin Concerto (from 1911, just after the Third Symphony) has an original two-movement structure: a slow introductory section preceding the faster tempo in each case. It is fearsomely difficult – Nielsen studied the violin so knew how to write idiomatically and effectively - and not a work I would have associated with Malin Broman. If this sounds patronising, it is certainly not meant to, because she has all the necessary technical facility. I am surprised simply because I know, and have admired, her playing on many excellent chamber music CDs (Nash Ensemble and Kungsbacka Trio especially) and – if my memory is reliable - a Mozart concerto with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, in which I played the viola. In the Praeludium (marked molto tranquillo) she and the conductor find a real sense of repose after the initial quasi-cadenza and rhapsodic section. My only caveat is her less than elegant use of downward shifts in two or three places. Generally speaking, portamento can heighten expression, but maybe one should be especially selective in the cooler atmosphere of Nielsen's music. The following Allegro cavalleresco has great character, while Ms Broman's clarity in semiquaver passage-work (which can often sound smeared) is admirable. Again, occasional juicy moments of portamento are not ideally judged. The substantial cadenza, well negotiated, leads – via four bars of arpeggiated string-crossing for the soloist (thank you, Mendelssohn) – to the recapitulation then a faster coda, all of which is conveyed with integrity and brilliance. The sombre Poco adagio which prefaces the final rondo is, in Robert Simpson's wise words, “a good example of how Nielsen can indulge in chromaticism without ever falling into sentimentality.” This avoidance of sentimentality is equally true of the performance, while the rondo is beautifully characterised and flawlessly executed. It ranks alongside several other fine performances and is preferable to some recordings by big-time soloists who are more interested in making a ripe, “expensive” sound, whether it is suitable or not. Perhaps it is a sign of the increased exposure of this concerto (and the raising of the bar which results) that we are no longer surprised when another very good performance comes along.

Like its clarinet cousin, the Flute Concerto has conflict as an essential part of its motivation/raison-d'être. The Violin Concerto is less typical in this respect. In the Flute Concerto, the conflict is personified by the rude bass trombone – a typically original and imaginative idea. Its dedicatee, Holger Gilbert-Jespersen, had fastidious taste and was particularly fond of French music. As in his Wind Quintet (and of course the Clarinet Concerto), Nielsen unerringly captures personal idiosyncrasies. The obvious parallel is Elgar in his Enigma Variations. Our soloist here, Anders Jonhäll, is superb technically and brings total emotional commitment to this wonderful piece, which in its eighteen minutes contains almost every facet of Nielsen's language - quirky, assertive, questioning, charming, childlike, humorous, capricious, troubled and moving. To select one passage – Jonhäll penetrates to the sad heart of the Adagio ma non troppo in 3/4 in the second movement, without any indulgence. The trombone's unwelcome, subversive entry in the first movement is superbly done, genuinely disturbing. (Simpson describes it as “grotesque and aimless blether”.) The belated discovery of a thematic link (near the end of the piece) is a lively joke, as Nielsen allows the oafish trombone, rather than the more sensitive flute, to fall upon this connection. Both Jonhäll and the orchestra are full-blooded advocates, playing this difficult score for all it is worth. Without exploring recordings which I have owned for decades, from Julius Baker and Bernstein onwards, I shall simply recommend this magnificent performance.

The soloist in the Clarinet Concerto, Andreas Sundén, has abundant technique to master this brute of a piece and he has tonal quality to match. (He was principal of the Royal Concertgebouw until joining the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2012) Just in case we should imagine (as I did) that this is a step down, we should note that this classy Swedish orchestra has been blessed with an illustrious succession of conductors – Celibidache, Blomstedt, Salonen, Svetlanov and Manfred Honeck, continued by their present chief, Daniel Harding. As a one-time clarinettist myself, I know that tone is a very personal matter, but I must say that I could listen to Sundén's playing all day. Listeners who specially favour the English school will find his tone less rich, clearer and more limpid. Much more important in this volatile concerto, however, is characterisation. The temperament of the clarinettist/dedicatee has been famously described as irascible, though his fly-off-the-handle episodes would often give way to a mood of introspection and regret. Nielsen brilliantly captures these mood-swings. I really admire such ability to evoke in music an almost bipolar nature. Beethoven was a master of such volatile, capricious changes of mood, while Elgar also has that unpredictable (and decidedly un-English) quality. Nielsen's clarinettist has to be able to move from one state of mind to its near-opposite within a few bars. Mr Sundén is mightily impressive. If I have to qualify my admiration, I would say that he is less successful at certain points where a dangerous quality is needed. I would not have wanted to cross the original Aage Oxenvad, but I do not feel disturbed by the outbursts in this performance. Without losing control of the instrument, ideally you have to create an edgy, even ugly feeling, be prepared to risk the odd squeak or squawk. A degree less sensible for a degree more demented would have been a good exchange, then the slow passages would be thrown into greater relief. Sundén is wonderful in the slower music, which seems to suggest a downcast Oxenvad hanging his head in shame. This – in common with the other two pieces on the disc – is a live performance and a very fine one. My reservation about the element of risk being sometimes underplayed should not deter anyone. Sundén is such an outstanding player that he may well have felt reluctant to make an ugly noise.  The side-drum plays a soloistic role and while the dynamics are scrupulously observed here, I think a little more presence would have been welcome. The orchestra plays superbly under Mr Valčuha, with one particularly fine horn solo. Indeed, in confessing my ignorance of all three conductors, I should add that the orchestral contributions are excellent throughout.

A few spelling discrepancies have crept into the liner notes and packaging – for instance, the name of conductor Juraj Valčuha. Otherwise, the notes describe the composer and these works well enough.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

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