As Nielsen’s unusual and brilliant Third Symphony turns 100, it’s about time we respected his notes as we would Mahler’s
I recently found myself vehemently disagreeing with a musician of considerable experience and distinction. Mats Engström, artistic administrator of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and a former member of the orchestra’s horn section, was talking of his admiration for Herbert Blomstedt’s famous San Francisco recording of Nielsen’s Third Symphony, the Sinfonia Espansiva.
And try as I might to bite my tongue, I couldn’t. Blomstedt’s Third is in contradiction with the principles that gave birth to the symphony, I said; he drives a dangerously speedy coach-and-horses through much of the score, frequently ignores its most salient points of structural interest and achieves motoric tightness in the place of freewheeling ‘expansiveness’. There was a cold silence. I looked around for support among the crowd of experienced Nordic music professionals gathered at the offices of Denmark’s state broadcaster, but there was none.
Now, I’m no grouch when it comes to Blomstedt – as Michael White’s feature reminded me last week. They wouldn’t be my first-choice recordings but the Swede delivers wonderful performances of Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies in San Francisco and his Danish recordings of the Symphonic Rhapsody and Helios Overture are fine indeed. Hey, the guy’s done more for Nielsen than any of us journalists could hope to. But the fact that his Third Symphony could be cited as exemplary by anyone with ears leaves me flummoxed.
But it also leaves me rather excited. If listeners find inspiration in what I hear as a distinctly one-dimensional and un-expansive performance of the Third such as Blomstedt’s in San Francisco, just imagine what they might hear in a performance that has depth, that has light and shade, that reveals the inherent counterpoint and captures the outdoor spirit of the piece. My experience of the outdoors, especially in Denmark, is one of changeable colours, bustling multi-directional winds and fluctuating currents of energy.
And that’s precisely what I don’t hear in Blomstedt’s recording, which covers the top line with palpable excitement, but not an awful lot else. Halfway through the first movement comes the cataclysmic moment of rupture, when the structure collapses into two concurrent runaway ideas: horns swing as if from tall treetops while strings twirl round in an indulgent, plastic waltz. It’s a little like one of those old cartoons in which two carriages from the same train split at a set of points and career down different but parallel sections of track.
In Blomstedt’s recording, you hardly notice the inherent conflict. All we really get is the tune and he careers through the gear-change and Nielsen’s marcato instruction. The effect is that of hearing a naff little tune; Nielsen’s point – in my mind the bawdy sophistication of the city grating against the striding health of island-born Hellenism – goes by the wayside. And don’t get me started on the falseness of his finale, and the lack of calming radiance in his slow movement…
That’s enough getting at Blomstedt though, especially as we pause to reflect on a remarkable career in his 85th year. In fact, listening again to his recording which has so riled me, I am aware of some qualities I wasn’t before: his sorcerer-like way with Nielsenite energy (though it comes at the expense of inner voices) and his mind for the broad, overarching structures.
Of course you might disagree with all my points and preferences – as Mats Engström (who has actually played the piece) does – which is fine. But I’d argue that too often we can’t seem to see past Blomstedt’s dominance in Nielsen, which might be because we don’t hear the music enough and we too often fail to understand where it comes from. Bernstein is legendary in Mahler, but we’d surely not point to him as the be-all and end-all of Mahler interpretation and we constantly look – in the pages of Gramophone especially – for alternative interpretative ideas.
Nielsen, as academics including Daniel Grimley have perceptively argued of late, was a character of deep internal divisions; musical threats and conflicts don’t suddenly appear in his wartime Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, they were part of his psychological make-up and were emerging in his First, Second and Third, too. Play his Third as a continuous rollicking tune if you like, but you’ll miss more than you gain.
So in the spirit of interpretative debate perhaps it’s worth pointing to a few recordings that present a more even, interesting and vertical musical picture than that painted by Blomstedt in San Francisco. Even the same conductor’s slightly ropey Danish National Symphony Orchestra recording has more of interest (though it’s far less well played), but I ended up settling on a few real gems: Schønwandt with the DNSO, Salonen with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestral, a truly special recording from Jascha Horenstein conducting the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in 1970, and a real gem which is a new discovery for me: Saraste with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (though at the risk of sounding like a real cynic, no truly ideal recording exists).
So let us, in this anniversary year for a truly great symphonic masterpiece, at least recognise how multi-hued the Third can be – even while satisfying the ‘expansive’ description. Who knows, we might all come back and settle on Blomstedt, but we owe it to all the other interpreters, and to Nielsen himself, to re-think how this music could and should sound.
Andrew Mellor is Reviews Editor at Gramophone magazine and writes widely for orchestras, opera companies, periodicals and websites in the UK and Scandinavia.