CD Review Alan Gilbert Conducts NYPO in Carl Nielsen’s Symphonies Nos. 3 and 2












Carl Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 3 “Sinfonia espansiva” and 2 “The Four Temperaments”

New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Alan Gilbert

Dacapo 6220263 | SACD | List price: $16.99


Alan Gilbert’s tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic has so far been a fascinating – and infuriating – study in extremes of musical expression. Or lack thereof, as witnessed by his somnambulistic recording of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 9” on BIS with the Stockholm Philharmonic a few years back. That recording was notable only because it proved once and for all that it is possible to sap and neuter any hint of expression from Mahler’s valedictory symphony.

His appearance in Los Angeles last May was no better, when Gilbert seemed lost amidst the intensity of Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4” and the uproarious jollity of Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture.” But before one could write him off, he produced an encore at the last minute by way of Berlioz’s “The Corsair Overture” – a sizzling performance and a baffling 180-degree turn. That same Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde duality can be heard in his broadcasts from New York, confounding the listener’s expectations time and again. When this disc arrived to review, I wondered which Gilbert I was about to hear.

As soon as the first note pierced through the introduction – a mighty unison that recalls the opening of Beethoven’s “Eroica” – it was clear that this was going to be an extraordinary Nielsen 3rd. The flickerings of nervous energy that animate the composer’s music are here conveyed with masterly assurance. Gilbert’s conception of the music is broad, big-jawed, and muscular. Nielsen’s musical language was always grounded deeply in his peasant roots, a detail Gilbert spotlights with coarse guffaws from the horns (2’51″ to 2’57″) and his deliberate build-up to the movement’s rowdy climax (starting at 5’45″).

Equally impressive is his manner with the “Andante pastorale” – from the rapturously quiet opening to the moment when the composer inserts a wordless vocalise for soprano and baritone (sung superbly here by Erin Morley and Joshua Hopkins), conjuring an almost cinematic evocation of the idyllic Funen landscapes of the composer’s youth.

Nor are the scents of hay and earth ever far away in the conductor’s hearty take on the scherzo, with gleefully gurgling clarinets and powerful brass at the fore. With the finale – a magisterial procession that Nielsen referred to as his “hymn to industry” – Gilbert brings together his sense of natural pacing, control and carefully terraced dynamics and crowns his performance with a rendering of the coda that is both grand and unbuttoned.

Just as fine is his performance of the composer’s “Symphony No. 2.” The crisp thrust of the opening movement is conveyed vividly and effortlessly by Gilbert. While the tempo he chooses for the finale is more measured than the near-frenetic pace on Morton Gould’s classic RCA recording with the Chicago Symphony, his attention to dynamic shading and color are superior; making for a finale that is perhaps closer to Nielsen’s intentions than the Chicago/Gould’s self-conscious (but thrilling!) display of orchestral virtuosity.

At the heart of this record is the New York Philharmonic, sounding better today under Gilbert than it ever has. Virgil Thompson once referred derisively to the orchestra’s “cast-iron string tone.” He should have been so lucky to hear them now.          Their strings today – and the orchestra as a whole – possess a warm, finely blended tone that has a Central European flavor ideal for Nielsen.

The engineering by Dacapo, with its well-placed perspective, depth, and presence, is outstanding. These recordings were made live, but aside from the occasional ruffle of sheet music and very faint coughing (audible only on headphones), the audience is very quiet and well-behaved.

The New York Philharmonic has announced that it will be recording all of the composer’s orchestral music in time for the Nielsen sesquicentennial in 2015. Welcome news given that this is first-class music that doesn’t often get played by first-class orchestras. If the subsequent installments of the New York/Gilbert Nielsen cycle remain on this level, then fans of the Danish composer will likely find themselves turning to Gilbert’s cycle as the definitive choice.

Other great recordings of these symphonies can be found: Thomas Jensen (Dutton) and Morton Gould (RCA) in the “Symphony No. 2;” Erik Tuxen (Dutton), Thomas Jensen again (Dutton), Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Berglund (RCA), and Schmidt (Unicorn-Kanchana). Gilbert’s recording sits alongside with the very best recordings of these works. But if pressed to choose only one recording, the listener can safely opt for Gilbert. It is a remarkable recording sonically and interpretively – and a magnificent testament to the talents of Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.