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CD of the Week – Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen: Symphonies 2 & 3
Da Capo

Many people know that Leonard Bernstein opened American ears to the music of Gustav Mahler in the early 1960s, when minds were more open to change than they are today. Few remember that he tried to do the same for the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Bernstein recorded three of Nielsen’s six symphonies with the New York Philharmonic and a fourth with the Royal Danish Orchestra (his CBS set was rounded off by two Philadelphia symphonies from Eugene Ormandy).

Unlike Mahler, Nielsen left New York cold. Nielsen (1865-1931) was a Nordic islander who observed the disappearance of agrarian isolation and chronicled it in works of compelling beauty but no underlying message. Unlike Mahler, or his closer neighbour Sibelius, Nielsen never sought to convey anything other than pure music. Nielsen liked to start a symphony in one key and finish it in another, which was a farly modern thing to do, but his language is resolutely tonal, rooted in the 19th century with very few hints of the horrors to come.

A new cycle by the New York Philharmonic and its conductor Alan Gilbert on the Danish label Da Capo gets off to a vigorous start with the second and third symphonies, presented for some reason in reverse order. The effect is slightly regressive. Where the third symphony, titled Sinfonia Espansiva (1910-11), anticipates the folksy adaptations of Aaron Copland in his country-and-western phase, the second (1901-2) is buried in a dead Brahmsian past.

Soloist for soloist, the playing is superior to the Bernstein set and Gilbert’s propulsion more vivid than Herbert Blomstedt’s rather heavy-handed San Francisco Decca set. This is as trusty a pair of Nielsens as you will find on modern records. All I miss is the sense of discovery – that wide-eared air of amazement that Bernstein’s New Yorkers brought to underplayed scores.

Three dazzling pianists

Anna Gourari, Canto Oscuro
ECM New Series

A multiple competition winner whose career got stuck in Germany, Gourari has just switched labels to good effect and presented, between muted Bach contemplations, two shockingly percussive works by Sofia Gubaidulina and Paul Hindemith. It’s a compelling, original programme and I’d pay good money to hear it live.

Didier Castell-Jacomin
Integral

The French pianist’s debut disc consists of music by women composers – Clara Schumann, Chaminade, Marianna von Martinez, all vaguely familiar, and Mel Bonis (1858-1937), who writes in an agreeable, pre-Debussy mode for the salons of her time. Not a major discovery, but never less than charming.

Alexandre Tharaud, Amour
Virgin

The soundtrack album to Michael Haneke’s new film consists of small pieces by Schubert, Beethoven and Bach-Busoni, played by Tharaud with slightly clipped precision, allowing no indulgence for the romantic title.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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