Revisiting a Passion of the Past

06.15.12
Leonidas Kavakos
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

New York Philharmonic Plays Carl Nielsen Symphony

If briefly during the late 1960s the symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen seemed to be catching on with American audiences, this was almost entirely because of the advocacy of Leonard Bernstein. In addition to conducting the works prominently, Bernstein recorded three of Nielsen’s six symphonies, as well as the flute and clarinet concertos, with the New York Philharmonic.

Though Bernstein was also an influential champion of Sibelius, other conductors took up that cause. He was more alone in his work on behalf of Nielsen, born in 1865, the same year as Sibelius. Nielsen came from the late Romantic tradition of Brahms and Dvorak. But to Bernstein, Nielsen, who died in 1931, was a craggy individualist, a composer who found his own path into the tumultuous 20th century, whose symphonies were exciting and significant works.

The Nielsen boomlet did not last. Today his symphonic scores turn up mostly as curiosities. But Alan Gilbert has assumed the Nielsen mantle. On Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall he conducted the New York Philharmonic in a pulsing, vividly characterized account of the Third Symphony (“Sinfonia Espansiva”) in a program that included Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture and Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist.

The symphony was recorded as part of the Philharmonic’s Nielsen Project, begun last season with the Second Symphony. Mr. Gilbert and the orchestra will record all the Nielsen symphonies and concertos for release on the Danish label Dacapo.

Bringing renewed attention to Nielsen may seem a surprising priority for a New York-born conductor. But music directors should have personal passions, and it is heartening to see Mr. Gilbert turning one of his into a major statement. Nielsen could use the boost. The Philharmonic had not played the Third Symphony since its first performance of the piece, in September 1965, when Bernstein conducted it on a season-opening program.

The Third, completed in 1911, came almost 20 years after Nielsen’s First and a decade after the Second. The enigmatic title, “Sinfonia Espansiva,” may simply suggest that here a confident composer in his mid-40s is letting loose in a sweeping score of nearly 40 minutes.

The first movement opens dramatically, with stuttering, accelerating blasts of a fortissimo unison A, finally breaking out into a torrent of energy as a melody soars over a whirl of jumpy chords and inner voices. A subdued, elegiac second theme appears, but does not halt the defiant exuberance of the movement, which carries through a manic waltz episode.

The slow second movement is wistful and idyllic yet subtly unsettled. Toward the end of the movement, two voices enter (singing “ah”) in an extended passage of serenity and mystical allure. The soprano Erin Morley and the baritone Joshua Hopkins, standing in the midst of the orchestra, sang beautifully.

The third movement is like a rustic scherzo with pungent passages for winds. The finale, in the apt words of the composer, is a “hymn to work and the healthy activity of living.” In the stirring main theme Nielsen comes across as a Danish Elgar. Mr. Gilbert drew colorful, glittering and full-bodied playing from the musicians.

The performance of the Beethoven overture, though solid and vigorous, lacked some tension and drama. Mr. Kavakos has embraced Korngold’s Violin Concerto, composed in 1945. Born in Moravia, Korngold was a stunning prodigy, acclaimed a genius by Mahler. He is best known for the imaginative film scores he wrote in Hollywood during the 1930s. He borrowed themes from some of these scores (including “Another Dawn”and “The Prince and the Pauper”) for the main melodies of this plush, rhapsodic and shamelessly appealing concerto. Mr. Kavakos dispatched the intricate, dazzling violin part with gleaming tone and brilliance.

Thursday’s concert was the annual occasion to celebrate Philharmonic members who have reached milestones. Among those honored were three retiring musicians: the violinist Hanna Lachert (after 40 years), the pianist and celesta player Harriet Wingreen (47 years) and the harpsichordist Lionel Party (29 years).

The violinist Hae-Young Ham was honored for her 25th anniversary. And two violinists, Newton Mansfield and Enrico Di Cecco, were applauded for their 50th. The orchestra’s executive director, Zarin Mehta, retiring after 12 years, modestly waved from the lower balcony.