Tonight I caught the last performance of the New York Philharmonic's brief flirtation this season with musical Scandinavia, with the great Finnish soprano Karita Mattila singing Sibelius (and Beethoven) and the orchestra tackling, after a lapse of almost 40 years, Carl Nielsen's 2nd Symphony (The Four Temperaments). For a longtime fan of Nielsen's symphonies, this was really heavenly. In almost 40 years of regular concert-going, I can count the live performances of Nielsen symphonies I've heard on the fingers of one hand! And all six symphonies deserve to be played regularly. But more on that later.
The first half of the concert, conducted by NYP Music Director Alan Gilbert, was devoted to Beethoven. They started off with the 8th Symphony, which tends to get overlooked coming between the larger, grander 7th and 9th, and is among the least played of Beethoven's major works (the NYP last played it in 2004), so it was nice that they brought it out for a hearing. I thought they needed more low strings to do it effectively, but my main criticism, and perhaps this is just my bias, was that the performance was far too serious! My favorite recorded performance of this symphony is by Pierre Monteux and the Vienna Philharmonic, because Monteux understood that this symphony is humorous, actually a satire on the classical symphony tradition, with a deliberately lumpy minuet, a slow movement that is a little drama about the metronome, a bombastic first movement with humorous solo bassoon interjections, and a finale full of surprise outbursts. Monteux's recording sounds like he was conducting with a twinkle in his eye, and somehow he got the very serious VPO to play like a bunch of comedians as well. I've never heard anybody else do it quite like that, and clearly Gilbert does not feel the symphony that way — or, if he does, he didn't communicate it to the orchestra. Poker faces all around, and the music sounded that way as well. Technically everything was ship shape, but absolutely lacking in humor.
They finished the first half with Ms. Mattila singing "Ah Perfido!", Beethoven's famous dramatic scena for soprano and orchestra, and this certainly projected the proper spirit. Mattila conveys all that drama with her big, gleaming voice, and it was a wonder to hear.
After intermission, Mattila was back for three Sibelius orchestra songs in Swedish. These are real curiosities; apart from the short cantata Luonnotar, we rarely hear Sibelius sung in American concert halls. We should hear more. Sibelius was a master at creating a sonic frame for poetry, and Mattila and Gilbert worked hand in glove to produce an extaordinary sonic picture. After the songs, Mattila came out for a solo bow and sang a brief Finnish folk song as an encore.
For the Nielsen symphony they hired extra bass players – I counted 8 on stage, compared to the 5 for the Beethoven symphony – and the difference was palpable. Nielsen's orchestra requires that very firm bass foundation. Here, and perhaps it was where I was sitting (first tier box 10), but I thought balances were a bit off at times. The strings seemed swamped by the brass at big moments, and the woodwind soloists felt underpowered. Maybe it's that one hears so little live Nielsen in this city that the sound of his orchestra is just a bit strange. If one's impression is formed from recordings, one is not necessarily getting natural balances. Gilbert clearly believes in this symphony and gave a performance that seemed quite impassioned. He had the orchestra playing with lots of guts and gusto, which helped a lot, especially in the third movement which, truth be told, is a bit overextended compared to the rest of the symphony. The 2nd is not the weakest of the Nielsen symphonies, but it comes close. The composer has great ideas for themes, but sometimes runs out of steam in developing them all the way.
As a Nielsen fan, I was a bit offended by the condescending remarks that The Times' critic had for this symphony in the review published of an early performance in the series, but I could hear why somebody who is not a committed Nielsen fan might be a bit turned off, especially by the middle movements in their dawdling. But the seeds of greatness are there. The 3rd Symphony is a total triumph in the mold of the late Romantic symphony, and then the 4th and 5th take off into new structures and forms that are really mind-boggling. The 6th remains to me a bit of a puzzle, and I've never been fully convinced by any of the recorded performances I've heard.
The good news for Nielsen fans is that Gilbert will be playing all the symphonies and the concerti with the Philharmonic over the next several seasons. At a post-concert reception for patron donors, NYP Executive Director Zarin Mehta announced that they plan to record all of them as well (the 2nd is being recorded this week) for the Danish label daCapo, and they will be released as a set to commemorate the composer's 150th birthday in 2015. (DaCapo already has a very good set of the complete symphonies conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, but on the basis of tonight's 2nd, I think Gilbert's will be very different.) So we will be hearing lots of Nielsen in New York, which truly excites me. Thank-you Alan Gilbert! Maestro Gilbert's prefatory note in the program indicated that his experience conducting in Sweden exposed him to lots of Scandinavian music for which he developed an appreciation, and I hope we will see that play out in future programming as well. I love Berwald's symphonies but have yet to hear a live performance of any of them, and there are plenty of other great Scandinavian composers whose music deserves some NY exposure: Jarnefelt, Halvorsen, Stenhammar, Rangstrom… Let's get it under way!