Carl Nielsen (1865–1931)
Pan and Syrinx (1918)
Flute Concerto (1926)
Symphony No. 3 “Sinfonia espansiva” (1911)
Adam Walker (flute)
Lina Johnson (soprano)
Yngve Søberg (baritone)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2023, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Chandos CHSA5312 SACD [63]

An involuntary “whoa” escaped my lips when I heard the initial cannon volley that opens this new recording of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3. Each successive shot came more powerful and faster than I had expected. OK, clearly this is an experience worth sitting up for!

First to the orphic Pan and Syrinx, which is this disc’s curtain-raiser, as well as mini-concerto for orchestra that attractively displays the qualities of the Bergen Philharmonic. I am not aware of any other recording that bests this one’s equipoising of raucousness and nuance, although Osmo Vänskä and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BIS Records BIS-CD-1839/40) runs this one close.

Just as fine is the sinewy account of the Flute Concerto, with flautist Adam Walker in authoritatively virile form. Soloist and orchestra are both perceptive to the sardonic irony that tinges Nielsen’s native sanguinity in this score. How rare it is for this work to be played with the conviction, range of expression, and interpretive unity heard here; capped by the masterly serio-comic balancing act of the uncredited trombonist in the coda.

However, it is the “Sinfonia espansiva” here that makes this disc worth running out to buy. There is something almost visceral in the urgent pacing set by Edward Gardner in the opening movement; intimating the chaotic energy that is the essence of the life-force, with its implicit capacity to create and destroy. Conflicting instrumental textures here are not blended, but piled up against each other, building tension, then finally released at the climax into a blazing shower of light.

For all the strength that characterizes their interpretation of the first movement, Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic are no less attuned to the beauties revealed in the succeeding “Andante pastorale”, one of the grandest symphonic slow movements since Beethoven. Supported by the CinemaScope-like production from Chandos, the wordless duet at the heart of this movement (sung splendidly by soprano Lina Johnson and baritone Yngve Søberg) verges on transforming into a tableau vivant of arcadian delectation.

Middle-period Nielsen’s inexhaustible optimism is, perhaps, a far-fetched thing for 20th and 21st-century musicians to contemplate, which may account for why so many performances of the finale tend to be bombastic rather than brawny. Gardner, instead, leads the Bergen Philharmonic in a rendition that peals with faith in the composer’s vision, resulting in vigor that is truly “espansiva”. So persuasive, so brimming with Eroica-like power is the recording inscribed on this disc that it may be my very favorite yet in digital sound. It at least deserves equal consideration with the superb John Storgårds (Chandos CHAN 10859). Interpretively, Gardner is closer to Erik Tuxen’s pioneering recording (last reissued on Dutton CDK 1207). Like the very best recordings in the discography, symphony and interpretation here combine into a manifestation in organized sound of man standing tall at the full noontime of life, its possibilities stretching out in a limitless horizon before him.

Néstor Castiglione

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