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Reviews: Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 - Gilbert

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Site review by Castor October 24, 2012
Performance:   Sonics:  
Dacapos's new Nielsen project gets off to a most promising start with this coupling of the 2nd and 3rd symphonies in performances that place this SACD amongst the best available versions on record and will be a first choice for many collectors..

The plush playing of the NYPO for Alan Gilbert, their new musical director since 2009, is beyond reproach and the recording team have managed to transform the problematic acoustic of the Avery Fisher Hall into something much more than acceptable - albeit with a suggestion of added reverberation that to my ears has imparted a slightly cavernous quality to the overall orchestral presentation. However, the sound does possess not only a marvellous clarity - ensuring that Nielsen's instrumental lines are always sharply etched – but also an immediacy; apparent from the firm timpani sound and the especially thrilling rasp of the brass. Both symphonies were recorded live at concerts given between January/February 2011(Symphony No.2) and June 2012 (Symphony No.3) but there is very little evidence of an audience presence. Now and then a discreet cough and and an occasional thump from the podium can be detected, but these are of little consequence and in no way detract from one's enjoyment of the performances. Thankfully applause has been excised.

Though Gilbert's performances have obviously been prepared with great care and the orchestra's response to his direction is immaculate there is something missing. What that is becomes apparent when the inevitable comparisons are made with some of the fine existing CD versions of these symphonies especially those by Herbert Blomstedt (Decca), Myung-whun Chung (BIS), and the under rated cycle by Bryden Thomson (Chandos). The explosive opening chords of the 'Sinfonia Espansiva' lack the drive and energy found on the recording by Chung and the Gothenburg SO. Elsewhere in this symphony in spite of impeccable orchestral playing there is no trace of risk-taking or sense of discovery such as that displayed by, for example, Bernstein on his 1965 recording with a less than stellar orchestra. Gilbert's performance of the 2nd symphony also benefits from the NYPO's aristocratic playing, but, notwithstanding the supremely beautiful string playing, the third movement marked 'Andante malincolico' is surely too leisurely. Elsewhere however the conductor's judicious choices of tempi convince.

The final instalment in the probing cycle by Colin Davis and the LSO of these works – that coincidentally will also pair these two symphonies - has yet to appear on the LSO Live label , but purely in terms of sound quality it is unlikely to exceed or even match this one. In spite of a few reservations this SACD can be warmly recommended, and I am eager to hear Gilbert's interpretations of the remaining four symphonies as and when they appear.

Copyright © 2012 Graham Williams and SA-CD.net

Review by Adrian Cue September 28, 2012 (22 of 23 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
From the French perspective, Nielsen’s symphonies seem to be mainly reserved for ‘well informed’ Nordic music enthusiasts. Just like Sibelius. Neither composer draws large crowds over here. Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks differently. It so happens that this Saturday (29 September) France Musique, the French classical radio station, will broadcast a Nielsen Symphony in their programme entitled: ‘Chefs d'oeuvre et découvertes’ (master pieces and discoveries). I suspect that the Nielsen symphony falls into the latter category. An admirably positive sign! I do hope that the recent rush to ‘revive’ Nielsen’s symphonic output on Super Audio (LSO’s ongoing and the upcoming BIS cycle) will contribute to the expansion of his ‘oeuvre’ in France and elsewhere. To that effect, this new recording of the 2nd and 3rd symphony deserves our full attention.

Those more familiar with Nielsen’s symphonies than I can no doubt be trusted to carefully weigh all the musical pros and cons of this newcomer and make comparisons with their personal reference recordings, questioning, by the same token, Alan Gilbert’s credentials with regard to Nordic music. I would welcome and look forward to such comments. In the meantime, here are my first impressions.

The liner notes say that both symphonies have been ‘recorded in 96/24 bit resolution (DVD Audio), mixed and edited in the DXD audio format’. For those not familiar with this procedure, it may be recalled that Digital eXtreme Definition (DXD) has been developed by Philips and Sony to enable recording and editing for SACD whereby ‘the actual editing is not compromised in terms of quality by being limited to a 1 bit DSD signal’. This brings us back to the ‘tribal wars’ of early High Definition recording and the DVD-A versus SA-CD discussion. (More about the technicalities of DXD recording can be found elsewhere on this site).

I do not want to re-enter in such discussion, because for us, the listener, the overriding question remains (as always): How does it sound? Well, in short: ‘extraordinary’. As a non-English speaker I cannot find a better word. It is out of the ordinary; it is different, it’s crystalline and glorious at the same time. For me it’s just what’s needed to give these symphonies a new lease of life.

I have RBCD copies with such conductors as Herbert Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony and Myung-Whun Chung (did anyone question his relationship with Nielsen?) with the Gothenburg Symphony. But I do not have any of the recent SACD disks for comparison.

However, right from the start the first thing that strikes you is the freshness of playing and sound. The picture is so clear that you forget that you are listening to a recording, reaching you through a set of moving coils. It gives ample opportunity to savour the qualities of each section in the New York Philharmonic. (Good to see them back alive and kicking!).

For whoever wonders about Alan Gilberts credentials, it may be noted that he is not a stranger to Nordic music. From 2000 to 2008, Gilbert was Chief Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, his first leadership post with an orchestra. The liner notes make no mention of it, nor does NYP site, from which his bio data were obviously copied.

The two symphonies belong to the first set of three, which are more easily accessible (for those new to this composer), than the second half of the six, written in conjunction with and after the First World War. Both are probably his most popular and therefore a good choice to start a new cycle.

I have no comparison for the Third, so I leave detailed comments to the specialists. Suffice it to say that I found it very convincing. Also the vocal parts in the second movement, Andante Pastorale, where both voices (male and female) are discreetly floating above the orchestra, as it should, like birds in the air.

As for the 2nd symphony, ‘The Four Temperaments’ much depends on how a conductor associates himself with each of the temperaments. How does one define choleric etc. It’s all a matter of perception. And that works out either way. That is to say, from the interpreter’s perspective, as well as from the listeners’. We should grant extra leeway to conductor and listener alike and views may differ. Even Nielsen himself was open to different views. A choleric person could at the same time show affection. I, for one, am wholly content with Alan Gilbert’s perception.

It is clear that Dacapo (after releasing a disappointing set not so long ago) has put much effort into this production. It’s an excellent start for a new symphonic cycle (and may be even more, with projected solo works in the near future).

I have hugely enjoyed these two symphonies and, it must be said, the playing of the New York Philharmonic. Look forward to more of the same.

Adrian Cue,
France

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Review by hiredfox October 22, 2012 (11 of 17 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Well, time to lay a few ghosts to rest. There are no noises off to distract during these performances.

After all the nonsense early on in this thread it was with a sense of trepidation that we settled down to spin this disc for the first time. The nervous tension that accompanied the performance was entirely misplaced so I have to ask exactly to what were the critics listening?

The other ghost is the one that haunts Avery Hall at least in the minds of some of our US friends. Like the Barbican, Avery Hall stage is wood faced so one might be forgiven for expecting a rather dead sounding acoustic. You wouldn't believe it from the evidence of this recording; whilst the acoustic may not be the best we hear on disc it is also a very long way from being the worst. Here the sound is expansive and airy and quite realistic.

Alan Gilbert, like Andrew Litton and Marin Alsop is a graduate of the Julliard School and they are not of disimilar age. To me there is a marked similarity in their conducting styles perhaps best characterised as being studied even cerebral and precise. The New York Phil play with more than their usual crispness and panache under his baton and here produce two excellent taught readings of these lesser known works of Neilsen setting a decent benchmark for this series and for the challengers. Perhaps one senses a touch too much restraint here and there where maybe a slacker reign and a little more derring do might help the excitement but let's wait for the later symphonies to judge that fairly as these early symphonies tend to be less dramatic than those.

There is nothing on SACD to compete at present and promised offerings need to show their mettle to go better. Personally I wouldn't wait. Just to have the Phil on SACD disc is reward enough

Symphony No 2 is a 96/24 recording up-sampled to DXD for mixing and editing a strange philosophy that is not explained. Why not use DXD from outset? In my opinion up-sampling always rounds off the edges of upper registers without any improvements to inner dynamics and positioning. Symphony No 3 is DXD throughout.

[edited version of entry on thread with corrections]

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