Video: Leonard Bernstein conducts Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’

None of the six symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) turn up very often on U.S. concert programs, and that’s a shame. The set is certainly one of the most remarkable and satisfying of the 20th century (though No. 1 was written in 1892). The reason they aren’t performed here much is perhaps hard to say with certainty, but I think it probably has something to do with our programming in general, which is overwhelmingly focused on German and Russian classics. There are simply no Danish works in the standard repertoire, Nielsen or otherwise.

At any rate, here’s a rather athletic and terrific live performance of the Third, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra in 1965. (The sound is decent; you can even hear Bernstein stomping at several points. The picture is virtually high def.) Bernstein at one time took up the Nielsen cause with some enthusiasm, and recorded the symphonies 2-5 with the New York Philharmonic, as well as the flute and clarinet concertos. He also recorded the Third with the Royal Danish.

Review: Walton Symphonies Nos. 1-2, Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony

How is it that the two symphonies of the British composer William Walton, from 1935 and 1960, have escaped my attention until now? Oh, certainly, the fault is mostly mine; I could have always listened to a recording of them. More to my point, though, is that I never did bother to listen to them because I thought them negligible and unimportant, having never once run across them in my many years of concertgoing. (Of course, what British symphonies do you ever hear regularly performed by American orchestras?)

Well, not to tarry, they are both very good. The First, completed when Walton was in his early 30s, is usually considered his masterpiece. “The claim that his First Symphony is one of the great twentieth-century symphonies is not excessive,” writes Michael Steinberg — a statement which itself seems not excessive. In four movements, the symphony is clearly modeled on those of Sibelius (the foremost living symphonist at the time), though Walton’s style here is more pent up, athletic and intense than it is dark and brooding. Walton took several years to write it and apparently had quite a lot of trouble doing so. (Stuck on the finale, he asked the advice of the composer Constant Lambert, who suggested a fugue. Walton, who was largely self-taught, admitted that he didn’t know how to write one. Lambert sent him to the article on fugues in Grove’s Dictionary and after reading it Walton produced the dazzling fugue at the center of his finale.)

Ostinatos drive the outer movements; the string section is required to leap and bound. The second movement is a biting and gritty scherzo marked Presto con malizia (with malice). The slow moment (Andante con maliconia) initially has a dazed sadness before rising to a more ominous and dramatic despair.

Perhaps Walton’s symphonies are underestimated because they remind us of others. In addition to Sibelius, the First recalls, in spots, Hindemith. The Second brings Stravinsky to mind, especially the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements (Walton’s Second is in three movements, too). But never mind, Walton makes the work his own, and it is enchantingly and elegantly scored. An angular and muscular Allegro molto is followed by a voluptuous, though still acrid slow movement (with moments of “Firebird” opulence). The finale — marked Passacaglia (Theme – Variations 1-10 – Fugue – Coda scherzando) — is a compositional tour de force, with a 12-tone theme and the orchestra put through the paces, a giant, powerhouse machine.

The current recording (on Onyx Classics) comes courtesy of the Bournemouth Symphony, home in the South of England, and its Ukrainian principal conductor Kirill Karabits, who together have made many recordings before, including the complete Prokofiev symphonies. These are confident and kinetic performances, without wasted effort and thrillingly pedal to the metal. The strings in particular deserve praise for their lean and nimble efforts in Walton’s pulsating and skittering lines. It’s all well tailored and well steered.

Audio: Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 7

I won’t categorize this as a “neglected symphony,” but it doesn’t turn up on concert programs that often, especially when you consider how good it is. The piece is in a single movement; it’s the last symphony Sibelius wrote (in 1924), though he lived until 1957. Colin Davis conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in this live recording.

Amy Beach: 150

Today is the 150th birthday of pioneering American composer Amy Beach. Here is the first movement of her Symphony in E minor, “Gaelic,” written in 1896. Neeme Jarvi conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Amy Beach, a Pioneering American Composer, Turns 150. The New York Times, Sept. 1, 2017.

Playlist: Neglected symphonies

Here’s a neglected symphony sampler for your listening assessment.

What, exactly, is a “neglected symphony,” you ask? In this case, these are works which your curator — me — has decided are worthy of at least a few more performances than they get. They range from the obscure to the fairly well known, but in all cases they rarely turn up on symphony orchestra programs.

For this playlist, I have included just the first movements of symphonies by Rota, Rubbra, Freitas Branco, Berwald, Chausson, Schmidt, Vaughan Williams, Tubin, Aho and Shostakovich.

If you don’t already have Spotify, you have to download it to listen to more than a sample (there is a free version). Let us know if you hear something you like. –TIMOTHY MANGAN