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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 3 ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ Op. 27 (1910-11) [41:25]
Symphony No. 5 Op. 50 (1920-22) [33:55]
Felicity Palmer (soprano), Thomas Allen (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra/François Huybrechts (3)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Paul Kletzki (5)
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 27, 29 April and 24 May 1974 (3), Victoria Hall, Geneva, 13-15 September 1969 (5)
ELOQUENCE 482 8570 [75:28]

CD collectors must be deeply grateful to Eloquence for their reissues in the last decade. Such gems as Peter Maag’s Mozart and Mendelssohn spring to my mind, but there have been so many forgotten treasures unearthed. These two Nielsen performances by conductors not immediately associated with this composer present an intriguing combination.

The Belgian Huybrechts, just turned 74, recorded only three pieces: this and Janáček’s Taras Bulba and Lachian Dances. (There seems to be another recording of Lekeu, Blockx and de Boeck.) He worked in the USA, in Wichita and in San Antonio. The latter orchestra dismissed him after less than two years, but one is left to guess why. Huybrechts maintained that no explanation was given, but according to the orchestra’s president it was “a private matter” and “reasons were given”. Texas Monthly described him as “brilliant and popular”. Since 1980 he seems to have disappeared from the music scene.

If at first this seems too broad a tempo, a quick check with the score shows that not only is the work entitled ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ but the first movement tempo is Allegro espansivo. This gives pause for thought. It may be that one should question most conductors’ understandable emphasis on the athletic quality, rather than the expansiveness. My initial impression was doubtful but long before the end I felt Huybrechts’s restraint and patience were rewarding. It is not as though visceral excitement is lacking. The emergence of the robust waltz in the development is a particularly fine moment. In passing, I must quote from Nielsen scholar Robert Simpson, who interpreted “espansiva” as “the outward growth of the mind’s scope and the expansion of life that comes from it”. This conveys admirably Nielsen’s own generosity of spirit, his life-affirming, optimistic nature. Throughout this performance, Huybrechts captures just that full-blooded “glorioso” feeling at those particular points when Nielsen makes us feel good to be alive. Many years ago this performance met with negative or lukewarm reviews, but my own feeling is that it deserves a more sympathetic hearing (or even a retrial).

In the ideally paced Andante pastorale, Huybrechts establishes the calm of the opening, then the intriguing character of the woodwind passage, before the strings’ fortissimo interjections, which I have rarely heard so passionate, urgent and noble. The two distinguished singers are fine (Ms Palmer, a singer I greatly admire, is a little operatic here) but this is definitely not the pianissimo which Nielsen indicates. The voices should be less prominent if, as I believe, they are meant to sound neutral. I feel sure that Nielsen intended them to blend into the texture almost as though they were instruments. I realise that this, like many composers’ most original ideas (especially Neptune from The Planets), is not easy to achieve. Huybrechts again favours broad tempos in the third and fourth movements, but for me they work very well. The beginning of the Allegretto un poco is a little morose but this is not detrimental. It does allow a greater contrast when the more energetic idea emerges.

Some aspects of Huybrechts’s interpretation are controversial, but I never feel that he strays from a genuine understanding of Nielsen’s idiom. I have to say that tempo should rarely be judged as the sole criterion. The question is surely: does the conductor convince us that it works? Anyone immediately deterred by broader than usual speeds in Huybrechts’s interpretation will be missing a powerful performance. The finale (one notch slower than Bernstein's recording) maintains the same total commitment and even one or two unwritten, momentary rallentandos do nothing to detract from the overall positive impression. The final fortissimo restatement of the glorious main theme and the concluding pages underline my feeling of an admirable performance. I have more than a dozen other recordings, but this well deserves a place on the shelf among the less controversial, more obviously recommendable performances. One has simply to banish preconceived ideas, and accept it on its own terms.

Still an underrated conductor, Paul Kletzki conducts a vigorous, straightforward performance of Nielsen’s Fifth. The beginning – in Nielsen's static, aimless, deliberately “vegetating” manner – lacks mystery. It sounds too purposeful, as though “let’s get on with it”. As with the Huybrechts Espansiva, this opening may deter some listeners, but it is well worth persevering. As the first section, exciting in an overpowering, relentless way, peters out, the broad melody (Adagio non troppo) is marvellously played, with great expressive warmth from the strings. Some may prefer a cooler sound, more Nordic, but I love the grandeur which Kletzki achieves here. This section builds to a chaotic climax, the orchestra playing at full stretch to see off the subversive side-drum. I have heard the final clarinet soliloquy played more movingly but, as I may have suggested, Kletzki is not notably subtle in this symphony. His approach – full-blooded, committed and, as they say, up-front – certainly holds the attention. In the strings' fast passage-work in Part Two Kletzki drives the players uncompromisingly. They sound stretched at times but I would not want streamlined, glossy perfection. Like the Grosse fuge, it should not sound easy. A feeling of danger is essential to the music. In 1969 the Suisse Romande was not rated among the world's finest orchestras but the occasional roughness or less-than-total technical command are no hindrance to the strengths of Kletzki’s interpretation. If you like the symphony performed with unbelievable energy and elemental excitement, then you will be well satisfied. However, this is not to suggest that the passages of repose and necessary reduction of tension are in any way unsatisfactory. Recorded sound is equally pleasing, while the liner notes by Hugh Ottaway and Robert Simpson are as good as one would expect from these writers.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

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