I have no idea why Deutsche Grammophon published its latest album from Gustavo Dudamel as a three-CD box set. Sibelius, Bruckner, and Nielsen are strange bedfellows indeed. Each CD could stand on its own, but DG has it packaged such that if you want the Bruckner Ninth Symphony, you also get two Nielsen Symphonies and a Sibelius Symphony as a bonus. All are live concert recordings—you can tell by the many audible grunts from Dudamel. Three CDs. Three very different composers. One price: $36.
I grew up on the Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony recordings (Decca) of the Nielsen Symphonies and a few years ago fell in love with Osmo Vänskä’s cycle with the BBC Scottish Symphony (Bis). So, I measure any new recording of the Nielsen Symphonies against those. For me, this one just doesn’t have the imagination or excitement of either the Blomstedt or Vänskä performances. Strange, for a conductor whose brand is passion.
Dudamel’s Sibelius Symphony No. 2 is perfect. Too many conductors try to make this symphony more than what it is and end up with an interpretation where the sense of scale is all wrong and, in the end, the musicians in the orchestra end up crumpled in a heap on the floor, licking their wounds. This finely-balanced, unsentimental reading rises above the litany of those all-too-common sappy Sibelius Twos out there.
A few words about the oft-recorded Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra: the wind playing is phenomenal. In the Nielsen Fifth Symphony, the snare drummer steals the show. But what’s missing from these performances is depth and warmth from the GSO string section—something that Dudamel has cultivated in remarkably short order from the LA Philharmonic. It makes me wish there were a few more CD recordings of Dudamel and the LA Phil to choose from.