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Intimate Beethoven, expansive Nielsen

Roy Thomson Hall
02/19/2014 -  & February 20, 2014
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 27 "Sinfonia espansiva"

Jonathan Crow (violin), Andrea Nunez (soprano), David Diston (baritone)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor)

T. Dausgaard (© Ulla-Carin Eckblom)

This set of concerts provided a showcase for the orchestra’s concertmaster, Jonathan Crow, in the demanding Beethoven Violin Concerto. He and Thomas Dausgaard delivered as intimate a performance as one can probably get in a 2600-seat space, with an orchestra of 55 players and both soloist and conductor paying very careful attention to one another. Dausgaard’s approach helped also to focus on the contributions of other players with their brief highlighted passages; notable among these was Michael Sweeney on bassoon. The reverie of the second movement probably came off best, but the whole performance was a real success.

Thomas Dausgaard is Danish and was Principal Conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, so it comes a no surprise that on the program was a symphony by Carl Nielsen. Prior to the performance he made some insightful remarks about Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, composed 1910-11, and the turbulent era of its composition, with opposing and overlapping influences from Debussy, Mahler, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, and Stravinsky. (By the way, there is a fascinating parallel with the visual arts as displayed in a current show, The Great Upheaval at the Art Gallery of Ontario in which works from New York’s Guggenheim Museum show the fundamental changes that occurred in the years just before World War I, what with influential figures like Picasso and Kandinsky.)

Judging from this performance, the work is rightfully nicknamed the “Sinfonia espansiva”. One wonders whether Nielsen knew of Mahler’s comment to Sibelius that “A symphony should be like the world. It must contain everything.” This work, like a Mahler symphony, conjures up a broad variety of associations. The first movement (Allegro espansivo) has a bucolic section that morphs into a carnival. The second, Andante pastorale, has solemnity and passages that remind one of the nature music in Wagner. In the version performed it also featured wordless vocalises by soprano Andrea Nunez and baritone David Diston (the vocal lines can alternatively be covered by clarinet and trombone.) The third movement rings out a tocsin leading to a processional section; the brass blazes out then sinks away. The finale has a big rolling theme worthy of another contemporary of Nielsen, Edward Elgar.

The symphony (75 players were used) has an extroverted grandeur that, in the space of just under 40 minutes, never wears out its welcome.

Nielsen was born in 1865 which makes 2015 his sesquicentennial. Thomas Dausgaard will return to the TSO next season to conduct Nielsen’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in three programs, each one performed with a Beethoven piano concerto featuring Jan Lisiecki.

Michael Johnson



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