Perhaps there is a natural pace for Carl Nielsen’s music. Alan Gilbert certainly chooses comfortable speeds for most of it and it is interesting how very close these are to those taken by John Storgårds in his excellent Chandos recording of the Symphonies. Intriguing, too, is this reading of the Flute Concerto. The time taken to perform a piece would not normally be much of a guide to the authenticity of the interpretation, but Robert Langevin, the New York Philharmonic’s flautist, combines with Gilbert in an extremely elegant reading of this subtle work which takes the same amount of time almost to the second as the sixty-year-old recording by Nielsen’s dedicatee Holger Gilbert-Jespersen (now on Eloquence 480 1858). The two renditions have many similarities, particularly the flowing elegance evident during quieter sections, Langevin its equal in sensitivity. Nielsen’s underlying pattern wherein the soloist is constantly challenged by the orchestra in general and the bass trombone in particular, is presented with great skill. These sudden interruptions of the flautist’s line – resulting occasionally in a flurry of annoyance – are welded into the fabric of the music carefully so that these quaint upsets remain part of the music’s construction.
The Clarinet Concerto has a similar philosophy of troubling the soloist – this time it is the side drum that seeks to intervene. When writing the Concerto for Aage Oxenvad, Nielsen’s attitude was to exploit that musician’s choleric temperament. As with Jespersen, Oxenvad took the exploitation of his character in good part and anyway he once described himself as a “frightful curmudgeon”. The clarinet piece is demanding and Oxenvad admitted that he could play only about eighty-percent of the notes. Anthony McGill – also a Philharmonic principal – seems to be untroubled. His is a strong, forthright view; his ‘stereophonic’ separation from the side drum makes a very good musical point and the full-bodied orchestral sound is suitably strong and natural. McGill’s untroubled playing of the cadenza with its perfectly timed pauses typifies his confidence.
Nikolaj Znaider is commanding in the relatively neglected Violin Concerto. Most of Nielsen’s music is tightly knit but the first movement is uncharacteristically discursive. Suddenly a folk-like theme arrives succeeded by a lyrical Mendelssohn-reminding section. Emerging from this selection of melodies Znaider assertively carries the music forward and it becomes clear that it is not fragmentary after all. The brief, slightly sad pastoral slow movement is an ideal foil before the minor-keyed jollity of the Finale which gives the soloist space for lyrical expansion. Znaider plays down the innate spikiness and adds an inner strength to a movement which again provides a wealth of melodic ideas.
With just a couple of exceptions Gilbert’s choice of tempo in the Symphonies is admirable. He mostly avoids alterations of speed although he does sometimes loosen up in quieter moments. Symphony No.1 is Classical in form. Gilbert sets off boldly but I was a little surprised when he makes a relaxation in the second subject, making it necessary to impose a notable increase of speed to reach the exposition repeat. The coda is powerful however and the slow movement suitably quiet and reflective. The succeeding Allegro comodo, less pointed in rhythm than in most interpretations, features strong emphasis on timpani even though they are not in such incisive focus as elsewhere. The Finale, apart from when Gilbert questionably interprets poco tranquillo as a slight slackening of tempo, drives forward well enough.
Gilbert’s reading of the first movement of Symphony No.2 (‘The Four Temperaments’) is bewildering – he commences at huge speed, faster than in any performance I can recall yet overall he takes longer than any comparative version that I have to hand. I took as an example the version of No.2 from the underrated set by Theodore Kuchar – he begins slower than Gilbert yet reaches the end nearly ninety seconds earlier. Kuchar, although quite fast, never hurries and as with Ole Schmidt and Storgårds in their slightly broader renderings, he is consistent in tempo. Not only does Gilbert become slower after the first minute but he is slower still prior to the coda. Gilbert conducts the remainder of the Symphony with far greater conviction; his languid approach to the Allegro comodo with its moment of surprise two-thirds the way through is persuasive, and the breadth of the slow movement is also in keeping and the forcefully sanguine Finale makes its way steadily – Gilbert follows Nielsen’s suggestion that the march-like coda should not be hurried.
The ‘Espansiva’ is suited to Gilbert’s positive view. Allegro espansivo is Nielsen’s marking and this is how the first movement is performed; there is flexibility of phrasing but no excessive contrast of tempo. The pastoral beauty of the second movement is gently conveyed and the composer’s daring use of wordless voices is warmly projected – more distant in balance than sometimes and very effective thereby. The Allegretto un poco continues the bucolic mood but the Finale’s tempo is a matter of concern. I have been bothered by slowness ever since encountering Leonard Bernstein’s enormously broad reading. Few conductors honour the metronome mark of minim=76; I know of none since Erik Tuxen did so in his 1946 recording. Gilbert is very spacious indeed although not as lumbering as the even slower version by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Also I question Gilbert’s ‘adjustments’. It can be argued that his tempo for the final return of the main theme is justified by the score’s un poco allargando but the real concern is the sudden jump forward of speed at the brass entry (bar 350); there is nothing in the score to justify this. If the initial ponderous tempo was chosen to make the movement more majestic this sudden rush undermines it.
On much safer ground is Gilbert’s view of the ‘Inextinguishable’. As with Symphony 1 the recording is a little ‘general’ but the big sound is still impressive. The grandeur of the extensive and dramatic opening shows that the big-orchestra approach with much weight is an appropriate way of dealing with the music but there is also delicacy in the gentle woodwind-based Poco allegretto and there is suitably hushed playing in the Poco adagio. The huge finale, with its ‘battle’ involving two sets of timpani cannot fail to be exciting. The commencement involves thrilling string-playing. Gilbert chooses not to overemphasise the rowdier aspect, but this is an exhilarating ten minutes of passionate performance.
Few Symphonies are more demanding when it comes to presenting Nielsen’s Fifth. Gilbert starts by being very obedient to the score where violas are marked piano and descend to pianissimo. The march-like section, announced by side drum, is strongly portrayed; firmness of tempo is essential and ideally achieved. The great Adagio which comprises the second half of the movement is played fervently and when it comes to the side drum attempting to destroy the progress of the orchestra in its fierce improvisation, Christopher S. Lamb opts for a continuously noisy approach. Gilbert has the measure of the final movement. The test here is the precision of the demanding fugue and the accuracy and power of the fearsome fortissimo duet between timpani and clarinet; both are presented with great skill. The timpani sound is a touch penetrating than in Symphony 4 and the power of these instruments at the end of the Fifth (marked fffz) is so great that they obliterate the violins’ grace notes before the final chord.
The Sixth Symphony (‘Sinfonia semplice’) is given a shapely reading which understates the anguish that invades the first movement. I am sure this is intentional and is consistent with an explanation that bestows on this enigmatic work an element of solidity. Even the deliberate crudeness of the second-movement ‘Humoresque’ is not over-stressed and the slurping trombone figures are not exaggerated; after all, the piece is bizarre enough already. This gives room for the slow movement to be as serious as possible, and similarly the variation Finale is made to flow; there is a fine waltz section and the bitter moments are fashioned so as not to disturb too much: perhaps the best of Gilbert.
I have mentioned Gilbert’s tempo manipulations and there is not the firm drive and thrilling intensity of Storgårds but there is much to be commended: rich, full-blooded sound complement readings which show considerable perception. The recordings were made at concerts, background noise is negligible and, commendably, all applause is removed.