Nielsen Symphonies 2 & 3
The New York Philharmonic has historic form in the Nielsen Symphonies, having collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on an outstanding Fifth in 1962. Half a century on, at the start of a new cycle under its conductor Alan Gilbert, it plunges us thrillingly into the composer’s soundworld, with the accelerating ‘A’s which begin the ‘expansive’ Third. As the first movement continues, Gilbert proves capable of embracing and reconciling all the contradictory elements of Nielsen’s musical personality: a warm heart and pent-up aggression, tenderness and playfulness, elegance and rowdiness. The playing is incisive and confident, and helped by a handsome recording – though the (stereo) balance doesn’t quite work in the idyllic latter stages of the slow movement, where the wordless voices are properly recessed but the muted violins’ canon is lost under the woodwind lines.
These are live recordings (albeit with scarcely a hint of audience noise), which seems appropriate for a composer in whose music the life-force seems to run through every bar. The Second Symphony, supposedly inspired by a primitive painting of the ‘four temperaments’ in a Danish inn, certainly never flags through its depictions of the choleric, phlegmatic, melancholy and sanguine humours, and never loses the thread of its underlying symphonic argument. Despite strong competition from Michael Schønwandt on Naxos (formerly Dacapo) and Herbert Blomstedt on Decca, and despite the expected arrival of these two works in Colin Davis’s LSO Live series, this is an immensely promising start to what could well prove a landmark cycle.