Nielsen: Symphony No. 4, Violin Concerto - Ehnes, Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5311
Classical - Orchestral
Nielsen: Symphony No. 4, Violin Concerto*
James Ehnes* (violin)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)
Nielsen’s epic Violin Concerto was premièred in Copenhagen in February 1912, by the violinist Peder Møller. Nominally the work is structured in two movements; each opens with a slow section and moves to a faster one. Whilst unusual, this layout could be seen as a more usual fast – slow – fast three-movement form, but with an extensive slow introduction to the first movement. The music moves quickly from one idea to the next, and overall has a bold, playful, and optimistic atmosphere.
In stark contrast, although written only a few years later, the Fourth Symphony is more cohesive and unified as a work. Written against the background of the First World War, the work is a celebration of life itself. Just before the première, in 1916, Nielsen gave it the following motto: ‘Music is Life, and, like it, inextinguishable.’ While it follows the usual four-movement design, each movement continues into the next without a break. The final movement features two sets of timpani battling each other across the orchestra. The recording was made in Bergen’s Grieghallen, in Surround Sound, and is available as a hybrid SACD and in Spatial Audio.
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Review by Graham Williams - May 14, 2023
The symphonic music of Carl Nielsen has been very well served by the record companies over recent years with three fine sets of the composer’s six symphonies appearing on SACD from, respectively Colin Davis (LSO Live), Alan Gilbert (Dacapo) and Sakari Oramo (BIS). Chandos already had complete cycles of these works on CD from Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Bryden Thomson so this new release from Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra faces a high bar whether or not it is the start of a new cycle on SACD. Rather than pair two of the symphonies on the disc, as is the case on the versions listed above, this release couples Nielsen’s 4th Symphony with his only Violin Concerto (as the composer did in his only concert in London in 1923).
Arguably the most compelling reason for acquiring this disc is the superb account of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto from the Canadian virtuoso James Ehnes. This concerto is a much underrated piece due partly to its considerable technical challenges for even the finest of violinists. From the first bars of the dramatic opening ‘Praeludium’ it is clear that this is to be an electrifying account of the score from both orchestra and soloist. Ehnes’s consummate technique and absolute command of the solo part makes light work of the concerto’s hurdles, such as the extended cadenza at the centre of the ‘Allegro cavallerésco’ as well as that in the work’s genial Rondo finale.
Elsewhere one marvels at his sensitivity and the ineffably beautiful sounds he conjures from his instrument, the 1715 ‘Marsick’ Stradivarius. Gardner’s accompaniment supports the soloist with lively and stylish playing from his Bergen orchestra.
Thanks to his acute rhythmic sense Nielsen’s music has an energising tautness that any interpreter of his symphonies must fully communicate to the listener. This is especially true in the case of the composer’s 4th Symphony ‘The Inextinguishable’. In Gardner’s hands the opening movement is marginally more measured when compared with the versions listed above though it is not lacking in tension. In contrast, Gardner adopts much faster speeds in the three movements that follow. After the brief and folksy ‘Poco allegretto’ he launches into a searing account of the fourth movement (impassioned playing from the Bergen strings) that carries us forward into as thrilling an account of finale as one could wish for. It need hardly be said that, as in the Violin Concerto, the orchestral playing throughout is first rate.
The recording, made in the excellent acoustic of the Grieghallen in Bergen, (14-17 June 2022) was produced by Brian Pidgeon and engineered by Ralph Couzens assisted by Erlend Myrstad of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, is spectacularly good. It possesses both warmth and clarity, while the wide soundstage ensures that the salvos from the two sets of timpani in the 4th Symphony’s final movement make their maximum impact.
This latest version of Nielsen’s 4th Symphony joins a surfeit of very recommendable recordings of this wonderful work on SACD, but for this listener it is James Ehnes’s performance of the violin concerto that takes the palm here.
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