nielsen symphony chandos

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Violin Concerto, Op.33, FS 61 (1911)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, FS 76 “The Inextinguishable” (1914-16)
James Ehnes (violin)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2022, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Chandos CHSA5311 SACD [68]

The music of Carl Nielsen has continued to become a significant part of the standard orchestral repertoire in recent years, at least as far as recordings are concerned.  There are quite a number of recordings of these two works now from which to choose, but there is only one other I know that has paired them on a single disc: Yehudi Menuhin conducting the Royal Philharmonic with violinist Arve Tellefsen (Grappa).  I have not heard that disc, but I cannot imagine it being performed better than the accounts on this new SACD.  These are fresh, invigorating performances by the Bergen Philharmonic under Edward Gardner with James Ehnes as soloist in the Violin Concerto.  According to Paul Griffiths’ informative essay in the accompanying booklet, the two pieces were also on the programme that Nielsen himself conducted in London in 1923.  They indeed make substantial and appropriate disc mates, as both were composed in the same period of Nielsen’s career while he was second conductor of the Royal Theatre in Denmark and later teaching at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

As Griffiths points out, the Violin Concerto’s structure is rather different from that of many traditional concertos:  “The work is nominally in two big movements, but that is just one of the ways in which it gives convention a twist.”  One may likewise view it as a three-movement piece with the first movement having a long, slow introduction, followed by the slow movement that leads directly to the finale.  On this disc, the work is divided into four tracks with each main section having its own track.  Ehnes clearly upholds his reputation here as a brilliant violinist.  The work holds no terrors for him.  His is an ebullient performance that is backed to the hilt by Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic.  Even with the virtuosic violin part, the orchestra does not take a back seat.  Nielsen treats it as an equal partner to the soloist.  The horns in the first movement are terrific, the oboe in the slow second movement is heartfelt, as is the lyrical violin, and the finale is as light and whimsical as one could wish with a wonderful bassoon around the 3:00 mark.  They keep the tempo moving with its delectable rhythmic figures until the music just stops, not needing to add another note.   Two other accounts that have impressed me are the now classic Cho-Liang Lin with the Swedish RSO under Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sony, coupled with an equally fine Sibelius Concerto (review) and the more recent one with Nikolai Znaider and Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic on Dacapo that includes the other Nielsen concertos (review). It is interesting to note one place in the work that has bothered me:  the last four notes in the first movement.  They always seem tacked on unconvincingly.  Gilbert really separates them so they sound like an important ending, while Gardner runs them together at a faster tempo so they seem less noticeable.  Salonen falls somewhere in between those extremes.  I don’t think one way is preferable to any other and still think the fault, if it is a fault, lies with the composer.  At any rate, I would be happy with any of these versions, and Ehnes’s is certainly their equal.

Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” is still his most popular symphony and deservedly so.  That’s not to say his other pieces in the genre are not as great because they clearly are.  The Fourth’s popularity is likely due to its feeling of optimism and its victorious conclusion.  It is one of those works that aims for the finale right from the very beginning.  A performance of it will triumph, or not, depending on the success of that last movement.  Here Gardner succeeds handily.   The orchestra plays outstandingly well for him in all departments and he keeps the symphony moving.  This is appropriate because all the movements are connected.  I found his slightly quicker tempo for the second movement convincing with the woodwinds as delectable as one would expect and the dynamics quieter than in some recordings.  I was happy not to hear anything extra-musical in this section because there are other recordings, such as Blomstedt’s on Decca (review) and Oramo’s on BIS (review), where it sounds like the clicking of the clarinet’s keys or some other sound that can distract one’s attention to the music.  There are so many fine versions of this work from which to choose that a first port of call becomes difficult, if not impossible, for me.  Gardner’s recording is exceptionally clear with very incisive timpani:  the concluding strokes of the work crack sharply.  There are times, though, that I wished for more depth of orchestral sonority, both in the strings and low brass.  I listened to the disc on my standard stereo system.  Those with an SACD player may have a different impression.  I compared this new recording with what may still be my favourite, Alan Gilbert’s with the New York Philharmonic (Dacapo), which is likewise SACD (review) and there I found the depth missing from Gardner’s.  As thrilling as the Bergen’s horns are, New York Philharmonic’s will knock your socks off!  I also sampled Fabio Luisi’s new Danish account on DG and, while it is very exciting and clearly recorded, it seems a bit cold to me.  Both Gardner and Gilbert do not shortchange the warmth of the symphony.

Overall, I could easily live with these performances of the symphony and concerto.  They are rarely coupled on disc and make for an attractive programme.  If this is all the Nielsen Chandos has planned for Gardner, then that is more than enough for me to want to hear the disc again.  However, it would be great if they were to couple, say, the Fifth Symphony with the Clarinet Concerto and the Sixth Symphony with the Flute Concerto with their similar instrumentations, respectively. 

Leslie Wright

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