October 18, 2012


Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1-6. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Theodore Kuchar. Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 2 (“The Four Temperaments”) and 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”). New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

      Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies are among the most varied of those by any symphonist.  All Mahler symphonies are recognizably Mahlerian, all Bruckner ones clearly Brucknerian, all by Brahms decidedly Brahmsian, all from Sibelius definitely Sibelian; but each of Nielsen’s six sounds so different from the others that it can be difficult to recognize what they have in common – other than extraordinary creativity of design and highly unusual approaches to form and orchestration.  A Nielsen cycle is in many ways harder to conduct than other surveys of composers’ symphonies: each work needs to be thought of quite differently and handled in a different style.  Theodore Kuchar and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra (the former Czech Radio Orchestra) do a more than creditable job with the cycle, and the excellent pricing of their three-CD set makes this a very attractive journey through Nielsen's symphonic output.

      The orchestra is not quite at the highest European level, with some harshness in ensemble, comparatively thin string sounds, and brass that lacks the warmth and richness found in some other orchestras.  But the musicians play with sureness and enthusiasm and give Kuchar plenty of volume when he calls for it – and some lovely soft passages when he requires them.  Symphony No. 1, distinguished for starting in one key (G minor) and ending in another (C major), is the Nielsen symphony most firmly grounded in the Germanic tradition, and it gets an upbeat, enthusiastic reading here, although the finale, marked Allegro con fuoco, is not quite as dramatic as it can be.  No. 2, “The Four Temperaments,” is a highly unusual work, combining the structural elements of a symphony with the storytelling of a tone poem to illustrate the old idea of four types of people, their personalities determined by “bodily humors”: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine.  Contrasts among the movements need to be pronounced, with great intensity in the outer movements and considerable relaxation in the inner ones.  An over-the-top approach works well here.  Kuchar is a touch too controlled, and there is not quite enough contrast between the opening movement (choleric: ambitious, aggressive, passionate) and the finale (sanguine: impulsive, sociable, charismatic).  But the middle movements are handled very well, and the very end of the finale has highly welcome intensity.

      Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia espansiva,” features a dual-voice vocalise in the slow movement and a particularly effective scherzo, but a finale that can easily become plodding because of the blandness of its thematic material.  In this essentially pastoral work, Kuchar does very well indeed, allowing each movement its own flavor and preventing the finale from becoming a disappointment through a well-chosen tempo and a willingness to keep pushing the movement ahead, simply not allowing it to flag.  No. 4, “The Inextinguishable,” is tense, violent and often quite loud, more modern in sound than the first three symphonies, more menacing and far more filled with struggle.  Kuchar here is a touch too mild: the finale, especially, could use more bite before its upbeat conclusion.  The timpani explosion before the affirmative ending is played very well but rather judiciously – something a touch more frantic would have been more effective.  This performance is effective but not as involving as it could be.

      No. 5, though, is excellent.  This is a more chaotic, inventive and difficult symphony than No. 4, cast in only two movements, including a banal first-movement march that anticipates the one in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 by two decades and also requiring a snare drum at one point to try to interrupt and derail the rest of the orchestra – by playing ad libitum.  The second movement’s strong rhythms are very well accentuated here, and the symphony’s overall effect of noisy drama (ending in triumph, as did No. 4) comes through quite clearly.  And then there is No. 6, a genuinely peculiar work that bears almost no resemblance to any other symphony by Nielsen or anybody else.  Its title, “Sinfonia semplice,” is tongue-in-cheek, since it is far from simple to perform or hear.  It is a truly weird work, mixing delicate beauty with sarcasm and percussion; it is nearly atonal except when it is thoroughly immersed in tonality; it is far sparser-sounding than the earlier symphonies; and it ends with what amounts to a stick-out-your-tongue raspberry, cocking a snook at the audience.  It is extremely hard to make sense of this symphony, which at several points sounds like Shostakovich – late Shostakovich – but flexibility and a willingness to see elements of it as a colossal and very sophisticated joke are absolutely necessary.  How else to regard the frequently and raucously interrupted waltz of the finale, for example?  Kuchar is a touch too sober and emphatic in this symphony, missing some of the nuances of absurdity even though he and the orchestra manage the rhythms and bizarre sectional balances very well.  This Nielsen cycle is certainly worth having at its bargain price, although it is scarcely the last word on the symphonies (there is unlikely ever to be one) and presents somewhat uneven interpretations.

      Perhaps “The Nielsen Project” of all the symphonies and concertos conducted by Alan Gilbert will prove superior on all levels, but on the basis of the (+++) first release, of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, the project’s overall success is less than certain.  Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic since 2009, has garnered praise from many quarters and is considered something of a great and grand hope for the orchestra – which, in truth, sounds better on this recording than it has in years (helped by some absolutely top-notch SACD sound).  But Gilbert has perhaps started his Nielsen cycle a bit too soon in his career, since there is a certain casualness to his interpretations that suggests he would do well to spend more time with the music.  Symphony No. 3 is the better of these two by far.  The orchestra plays with outstanding warmth, the rhythms are supple, the first movement sounds truly expansive (its tempo marking, Allegro espansivo, gives the symphony its title), and the vocalise in the slow movement is lovely.  The finale, though, is on the plodding side, with Gilbert nicely balancing the sections of the orchestra but allowing the movement as a whole to sag and flag from time to time – introducing elements of rhythmic flabbiness not heard elsewhere in this interpretation.  It is certainly not a bad finale, but it is not up to the quality of the first three movements.  And Symphony No. 2 is a real disappointment.  There is simply not enough differentiation among these temperaments: the interpretation as a whole, not just the second movement, is phlegmatic.  Although the playing in this January-February 2011 live recording is as good as in Symphony No. 3, which was recorded live in June 2012, Symphony No. 2 does not seem to engage Gilbert and the orchestra as No. 3 does.  The finale, in particular, is far too sedate – very far from sanguine.  The coda is paced as if it is as stately as that of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony – there is no headlong rush to a finish here.  On the basis of this disc, Gilbert has gotten the New York Philharmonic to pay close attention to what he wants and to play with more warmth and flexibility than it has shown in years.  But the orchestra’s skill has been put at the service of interpretations that are little better than mundane.  Nielsen deserves better, and hopefully will get it as “The Nielsen Project” progresses.

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