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 Recording of the Week  Nielsen Concertos with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic

A triple-bill of concerti this week, in honour of the 150th anniversary (strictly speaking, tomorrow) of the birth of perhaps Denmark's most famous composer, Carl Nielsen – to round off his survey of Nielsen's orchestral works, Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic accompanying the concerti for violin, flute and clarinet.

If, like me, you're only familiar with Nielsen's symphonic works (I particularly like his famous Helios overture), then you're in for a treat; his concertante writing is utterly distinctive and there's really nothing like it. In most composers, one can hear echoes of the styles of others, but Nielsen seems to stand alone and it's incredibly difficult to pin down his musical voice. What makes this even harder is that in these three concerti, “creeping into the very souls of the instruments” (as he himself put it) leads Nielsen to find three very different styles to fit the musical personalities of the instruments.

Alan Gilbert
Alan Gilbert

The violin concerto is first, kicked off by a portentous crash from the orchestra and an acerbic cadenza-like passage for soloist Nikolaj Znaider. In the extensive double-stopping (executed fearlessly by Znaider) one can perhaps hear something of an echo of Nielsen's own first relationship with the instrument, as a folk fiddler. Things soon settle down, however, and the lyrical beauty of the violin comes to the fore – though in truth the folk aura is never far away, and rustic-sounding passages recur time and again. Indeed in the second half of the second movement (the work is basically divided into two large movements) this light, playful aspect of the violin's personality carries the day.

Next in line is flautist Robert Langevin, with a smaller-scale work lasting only half as long as the violin concerto (Nielsen observing that “that's enough for a flute”!) There's a lot packed into just eighteen minutes, though; a generally rather pastoral-feeling work is subverted by the prominent use of both the timpani and bass trombone as sparring-partners for the soloist. The accompanying programme notes suggest that the flute is taking on the role of a bird startled by a predator, and this is indeed an image that springs to mind at several points; the soloist seems to be constantly on the move (or the wing), often spurred into a change of direction by the orchestra, calling on all Langevin's agility. The finale bears special mention – the trombone almost seems to overpower the flute, with an initially lyrical countermelody descending into vulgar-sounding glissandi, wresting control of the work right at the very end and giving it a decidedly burlesque sting in the tail.

I have to admit that this sequence of concerti has, quite by accident, saved what I think is the best for last. The combination of Nielsen's characterful writing and Anthony McGill's mellifluous playing gives the Clarinet Concerto a unique charm – the instrument's full range is explored and McGill's tone is marvellously liquid throughout. The moments when Nielsen indulges himself with a wallow in the rich, bassethorn-esque lower register of the instrument brought a particular smile to my face.

Here as in the Flute Concerto, the soloist isn't allowed to have things all their own way; in this case, McGill faces off against the snare drum – a combination Nielsen had already tried out in his Fifth Symphony, and which he presses further here. Its insistent rattling frequently disrupts the clarinet's cadenzas, though the middle movement does give an opportunity for the soloist to ruminate alone in what unfolds into a haunting meditation. After another few bouts with the snare drum, the soloist seems to agree to a truce – if not actually achieving victory – and an unexpectedly low-key ending rounds off the work, keeping the listener guessing to the very end.

This “keeping the listener guessing” philosophy seems very characteristic of Nielsen, at least for me – his music is constantly changing, with one mood often following another dizzyingly fast. Nielsen the man seems to have been a mercurial, witty individual with a strong streak of self-deprecation, and I think it's possible to hear this loud and clear in all three of these very different, and equally fascinating concerti. Highly recommended, both as an introduction to Nielsen and as a complement to the six symphonies that accompany it in the New York Philharmonic's box-set – also just released.

Nielsen: The Symphonies & Concertos

Robert Langevin (flute), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Nikolaj Znaider (violin), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Nielsen: Concertos

Robert Langevin (flute), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Nikolaj Znaider (violin), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC