Nielsen Feted at 150

By Sedgwick Clark

Alan Gilbert’s recorded cycle with the New York Philharmonic of Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s symphonies and concertos was feted on Monday by the orchestra at SubCulture, the lower Eastside concert venue. The symphonies were released in pairs as recorded by the orchestra live in concert over the last four years by the Danish Da Capo label. The completed four-CD set includes the three concertos—for violin, flute, and clarinet, superbly performed in concert by Nikolaj Znaider, Robert Langevin, and Anthony McGill, respectively. I’ll report on the concertos and revisit the symphonies soon, along with two other recently completed symphony cycles I’ve yet to hear by Colin Davis and the London Symphony on LSO LIVE and Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on BIS.

There was talk at the SubCulture event, to be sure, but there’s no doubt that a captivating pair of live performances will last longer in the memory. First, Nielsen’s distinctive humanity, warmth, and wit were ideally captured by five Philharmonic section leaders in his delectable Wind Quintet, Op. 43 (1921-22). I’ve marveled at the bold individuality of the Philharmonic winds on record and in concert for over 50 years, and it amazes me that this unrestrained projection of character and drama remains similar throughout many changes of personnel over the years. On this evening, Robert Langevin (flute), Liang Wang (oboe), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Judith LeClair (bassoon), and Philip Myers (horn) played impeccably, delightfully attuned to the composer’s cheerful sense of humor.

Nielsen’s four string quartets are considered more earnest than inspired; indeed, he abandoned the genre following the premiere of the Fourth Quartet in 1907, four years before completion of his Third Symphony, the work that established his repute as a major composer. But more performances like the impassioned one by Denmark’s Nightingale String Quartet of the first of his quartets, in G minor, Op. 13 (1887-88), might well cause some reappraisal among Nielsen scholars. Mark my words, given perspicacious management, the talented young women of the NSQ will be back again soon.

Walter Weller—Master of the Russians

News came on Wednesday of the death, at 75, of Walter Weller, a concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and founder of the Weller Quartet before taking up conducting and making several memorable recordings for Decca-London. Among them, a noteworthy Prokofiev symphony cycle with the London Philharmonic included a revelatory performance of the composer’s bombastic Age of Steel Second (for once it didn’t sound careful). The end of his excellent Shostakovich First recording with the Suisse Romande, coupled with a delightful Ninth, featured one of those patented Decca bass drums that blows you out of the room. Nor did he hold back the savage timpani attacks in the finale of his Rachmaninoff First with the Geneva orchestra.

I only heard him in concert once, with the New York Philharmonic in February 1980—not a distinguished evening, I’m afraid. All I recall is that the strings fell apart in the closing diminuendo of the Mahler Fourth slow movement, and the Times’s Harold Schonberg turned around to me and exclaimed sotto voce, “Did you hear that? I’ve never heard that happen before!”

Weller held several European posts, including music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, Scottish National Orchestra, and most recently the National Orchestra of Belgium. “He was so well-liked in Scotland,” reports, “that the government printed his image on a special £50 note.” Now that’s class!

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