In October of 2013, I wrote about my first encounter with Dacapo Records, a label that is supported by the Danish Arts Council Committee for Music, through their efforts to record the music of Carl Nielsen. The label had been working with the Danish String Quartet to record his four string quartets, and in 2013 they made the entire package available as a single digital-only download. Around that same time they shifted their attention to Nielsen’s six symphonies performed by the New York Philharmonic under Music Director Alan Gilbert. This led to three releases, each of two symphonies: the first and fourth, the second and third, and the fifth and sixth.
Last month saw the release of the latest stage in Dacapo’s Nielsen project, a single CD of that composer’s only three concertos. These are, in the chronological order of their composition, concertos for violin (completed in 1912), flute (1926), and clarinet (1928). All recordings were taken from concert performances by the New York Philharmonic, conducted again by Gilbert. The soloists are violinist Nikolaj Znaider, flutist Robert Langevin, and clarinetist Anthony McGill.
The title of the booklet essay by Jens Cornelius is “I Creep into the Souls of Instruments,” a paraphrase of a remark that Nielsen made at the age of 60, which may have been around the time he began work on his flute concerto. The context for the remark was that, while Nielsen had originally begun by composing at the piano and then turning his attention to the problem of instrumentation, he had matured to writing his orchestral scores directly. By way of chronological context, it is worth noting that Nielsen would have made this remark after having completed all six of his symphonies, many of which involve particularly imaginative approaches to instrumentation.
Thus, the violin concerto (which preceded that remark by at least a decade) involves the juxtaposition of a fair amount of traditional violin rhetoric with any number of “spicy” touches of far more modern instrumental turns. Indeed, it is worth wondering whether that opening wallop on one of the timpani drums was meant to be a sly nod to the more subtle opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 61 violin concerto in D major, particularly since it introduces an up-front cadenza that provides the violin with flourishes analogous to those that open Beethoven’s Opus 73 (“Emperor”) piano concerto, in contrast to the long (but obligatory in “the classical style”) wait for the soloist in the violin concerto. Furthermore, the suggestion that Beethoven may have been a point of reference, while it flies in the face of Leonard Bernstein’s efforts to promote Nielsen as the Danish equivalent of Jean Sibelius, seems to have been recognized by Alex Ross, when he wrote about Gilbert’s performances of the symphonies for The New Yorker. It does not take much attentive listening to recognize that Nielsen’s violin concerto shows more awareness of Beethoven and Brahms than of Sibelius, who had written his (now often performed) violin concerto in 1904.
On the other hand the two wind concertos show less of an inclination to take past influences as a point of departure. He had composed his wind quintet in 1922, and it is chamber music that definitely deserves attention for both the imaginatively innovative voices he gives to each instrument and for the ways in which he establishes interactions among those voices. (It is hard to imagine that this music could have begun at a piano keyboard.) So much went into that quintet that it is not surprising that Nielsen should have decided that he had more for at least some of the instruments to say. It is worth noting the brief period between his work on these two concertos, not to mention how close they are to his death in 1931. As was the case with Claude Debussy’s plans for sonatas, Nielsen’s concertos for the other three wind instruments may well have been “unfinished business.”
It is slightly ironic to read Ross suggesting that Gilbert had set straight a misconception fostered by Bernstein, particularly since Bernstein was Nielsen’s first real champion in the United States. However, there is no questioning the perceptiveness that Gilbert has brought to all three of the concertos on this recording. Whether Nielsen is taking a retrospective or a prospective stance, Gilbert always seems to find the right approach to phrasing his thematic content, coloring it with just the right balance of instrumental resources, and managing the give-and-take between soloist and ensemble. Those interested in Nielsen’s symphonies can now draw upon the perspectives of a wide variety of conductors, but this recent release is definitely an excellent way for the attentive listener to get to know the concertos.