A Centennial Revival – Nielsen’s 3rd Symphony at the NY Philharmonic

This past week, the New York Philharmonic's subscription program included Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Korngold's Violin Concerto, and Nielsen's Symphony #3, with music director Alan Gilbert on the podium and the excellent violinist Leonidas Kavakos as soloist in the concerto.  The Philharmonic is in the midst of a multi-year project to perform and record all six Nielsen symphonies, but performing the 3rd this year was especially fitting, as it is the centennial of this work's premiere.

Amazingly, however, this is the first time the Philharmonic has played the Nielsen 3rd since Leonard Bernstein's brief fling with Nielsen in the 1960s.  He was invited to conduct the Royal Danish Orchestra in May 1965 and decided, with typical Bernstein chutzpah, to program Nielsen's 3rd Symphony.  The concert was a success and a recording was made.  Then, early in the following Philharmonic season, he programmed the Nielsen in New York (September 30, 1965, was the Philharmonic premiere), and apparently that was the last time it was performed here by the Philharmonic.  Bernstein recorded three other Nielsen symphonies with the NY Philharmonic (2, 4 & 5), but he laid off the Tchaikovskian 1st Symphony and the enigmatic 6th.  Bernstein's recording of the 3rd is a benchmark performance against I've measured the others I've heard, and found them all wanting.  But the Royal Danish Orchestra was not in the same league as the NY Philharmonic, so I am delighted that Gilbert's rendition, which I think equals and even betters Bernstein, is being recorded.

This was a very exciting performance.  Crucially, Gilbert hit on the correct tempi for all four movements.  Last season, I heard Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra play this symphony at Carnegie Hall and I was quite disappointed.  I thought Vanska's tempi were too fast, failing to capture the spirit of the music.  Nielsen called this his Sinfonia Espansiva, but at Vanska's tempi the sense of expansiveness, especially in the first movement, was sacrificed on the altar of speed.  Indeed, many of Nielsen's characteristic figurations and gestures could not make their proper impact at Vanska's frantic tempi.  Gilbert has understood the character of this music and picked exactly the right tempi.  In addition, the powerful NYP brass and the gorgeous string section (the basses beefed up to 9 on this occasion) brought powerful depth, especially in the second movement.  Soprano Erin Morley and baritone Joshua Hopkins were also superb in their vocalise additions to the second movement. 

Korngold's Violin Concerto seems to have become part of the repertory, which might have surprised the composer, who thought his symphony was the piece that would assure him a place in the repertory.  To judge by the number of recordings, and especially its popularity with younger violinists, this has emerged as his most enduring work outside the film scores – but not totally outside, because he reused themes from several films in constructing this piece.  I find the first two movements to be very rhapsodic and meandering, while the third is a well-focused romp.  There are many points where one might exclaim "classic film score" — and then recall that it was Korngold who introduced this type of writing in Hollywood in the 1930s.  It sounds to us like a film score of a particular era.  But hear the influences!  I think Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler are channeled extensively in this work.  And hear the influences working today:  John Williams' magnificent orchestral film scores owe a big debt to Korngold.

Kavakos is a marvelous violinist.  I've heard him perform with the Philharmonic several times, and each time I've been won over anew by his passionate playing and exemplary technique.

The Coriolan Overture seemed almost like something to be gotten through in order to get to the business of the night.  I was wondering why this piece was on the program.  And then it occurred to me during the Nielsen that there were some resemblances of his work to Beethoven's in this overture.  Gilbert does try to put together programs that have some kind of unity, and I wonder whether this was his motivation in picking this particular Beethoven overture.

This was the penultimate subscription concert for the NYP this year.  I'm looking forward eagerly to next week's season finale at Avery Fisher, an all-Mozart event with the Mass in C Minor and 22nd Piano Concerto.  And then to the Armory the following week for the big final blow-out concert of the season…

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