My “First” Nielsen 3rd

Tonight I got to attend a live performance of Carl Nielsen's 3rd Symphony for the first time — which tells you something about how neglected this composer is in the United States.  I've been in love with this music since I first heard it in 1977, have numerous recordings, bought a score (that was a real treasure hunt), and know the piece intimately, but it almost never gets played here.  And now, wonder of wonders, two times in the same season, because tonight it was performed at Carnegie Hall by Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra, and in June it is on the schedule for Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

I just hope that Gilbert has a greater affinity for the piece than Vanska seems to have.  I thought he took the first movement much, much, much too fast.  The tempo marking is Allegro espansivo, but at Vanska's tempo "espansivo" is the last word I would use to describe it.  There are incredible things going on in the strings in this movement, but at Vanska's tempo they barely register, and the big lyrical moments rush by without being digestible for the listener. 

After he got past the first movement, I thought the performance improved tremendously, and my only complaint probably has more to do with where I was sitting than with what was happening on the stage, because the sound is bit muffled under the overhang in the dress circle at Carnegie.  I prefer first row seats, just in front of the overhang, where the sound is superb, but they were all gone by the time I got my ticket for this concert.  From where I sat, the brass were overblowing and the strings were not enough of a presence when the full orchestra was playing.  The Minnesota Orchestra has superb wind soloists and they got a good workout in this piece and really triumphed.  Wish I could say the same for the strings, but from where I was sitting they sounded weaker by comparison.

They began the concert with Tchaikovsky's Overture to the Voyevoda, Op. 3 – a prelude to a long-forgotten opera and a piece with some of the signature elements of the mature Tchaikovsky but far short of the master composer he was to become.  It was worth hearing, and they played it well, but it is not a particularly memorable piece. 

Then came the First Piano Concerto of Tchaikovsky, with Stephen Hough in the driver's seat.  I'm a fan of Hough – I love his recordings of the Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Saint-Saens piano concerti – but I thought he was having a bit of an off-night.  He went off the rails briefly at one point in the first movement, and there were some wrong notes and slap-dash chords at a few points.  It was not so much that, however, as the competition – I heard Daniil Trifonov play this piece with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra earlier this season, and that performance was ever so much more involving.  It was almost as if this was routine for Hough, but it certainly wasn't for Trifonov, all of 19 years old and full of poetry and the freshness of discovery.  I also thought Trifonov was more in control of the technical challenges and gave a much more individualized performance.  He put his stamp on the concerto in a way that Hough failed to do.  Heard in isolation, Hough's performance would pass the test of professionalism, but I didn't get the feeling that he was excited to be playing it in the way Trifonov was.  He played an encore very well, however, the Notturno from Grieg's Lyric Pieces, Op. 54, which he dedicated to a friend in the audience who was celebrating a birthday.  Rather a restrained piece for a birthday celebration, but very touching.


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