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Carl Nielsen
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7; Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 ("The Inextinguishable')
Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Symphony No. 5, Op. 50; Symphony No. 6 ("Sinfonia Semplice")
Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic

Review By Max Westler


  "Though Bernstein was also an influential champion of Sibelius, other conductors took up that cause. He was more alone in his work on behalf of Nielsen, born in 1865, the same year as Sibelius. Nielsen came from the late Romantic tradition of Brahms and Dvorak. But to Bernstein, Nielsen, who died in 1931, was a craggy individualist, a composer who found his own path into the tumultuous 20th century, whose symphonies were exciting and significant works. The Nielsen boomlet did not last. Today his symphonic scores turn up mostly as curiosities."

Thus spake New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini reviewing the live performance of the Nielsen Fifth that you hear on these Dacapo CDs. It almost goes without saying that Leonard Bernstein successfully championed the symphonies of Carl Nielsen in the 1960's, beginning with his altogether thrilling recording of the Third ("Sinfonia Espansiva") with the Royal Danish Symphony Orchestra, and continuing with now classic performances of the Fourth and Fifth with his own New York Philharmonic. Prior to Bernstein, recordings of Nielsen's music were few and very far between, and mostly by his countrymen Launy Grondahl (a Fourh from 1951), Thomas Jensen (a Second from 1947), and Erik Tuxen (a Fifth from 1950). Bernstein's passionate advocacy opened the floodgates, and many recordings of the symphonies (and several of the entire cycle) followed in his wake.

But can it be true, as Tommasini claims, that the Nielsen well has now run dry? Checking the listings on Arkiv Music, I found that if you compare, say, recordings of the Nielsen Fifth (arguably his greatest symphony) to those of the Sibelius Fifth and the Shostakovitch Fifth (two of their greatest symphonies), the Dane's stock is definitely on the wane. There are currently 88 listings of the Sibelius, 90 of the Shostakovitch, but only 40 of the Nielsen--and many of those happen to be reissues of older recordings. And there hasn't been a complete cycle of the symphonies since Micheal Schonwandt's with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 2000 (though not released by Dacapo until 2006). Given the never-ending tsunami of recordings of symphonies by Sibelius and Shostakovitch, this seems an injustice. For surely, Nielsen's stature and achievement as a symphonist equals theirs. At least we know that Sibelius thought so. "I don't reach as high as your ankles," he wrote Nielsen--a rather startling admission by a man not known for his generosity to other composers.

Nielsen's First Symphony, premiered in 1893, is, in some respects, a typical post-Romantic work, that proudly (and prominently) bears the influence of Brahms and Dvorak. But it also contains many fresh and adventurous touches that signal "the craggy individualist" that Nielsen would later become. As one critic described it, "Unquiet and ruthless in harmony and modulation, yet all so wonderfully innocent and unconscious, as if one saw a child playing with matches and a stick of dynamite." With the Fourth and the Fifth Symphonies, Nielsen's genius is in full blossom. Here are two of the Twentieth Century's supreme masterpieces, and both feature characteristically bold and audacious gambits. In the last movement of the Fourth, two timpanists set on either side of the orchestra exchange artillery fire in a thunderous, take-no-prisoners conflict. In a crucial passage in the Fifth, a snare drummer is asked to play "at his own tempo, as if he wanted to disturb the music at any price." Though very different, the Fourth and Fifth are both composed in highly charged, dynamic forms: the Fourth in one continuous, incandescent torrent; the Fifth in two polarized movements that suggest constantly shifting tectonic plates. Nielsen's Sixth is something else again. Although he liked to characterize it as "merry and in a lighter vein," the Symphony is anything but "semplice." The music is a series of provocations, sleights-of-hand, and savage parodies. The composer takes his leave with a blighted fanfare, a tipsy polka, a nose-thumbing burst of sound and fury signifying nothing, and two bassoons passing wind. For Nielsen the world doesn't end with either a bang or a whimper, but with a bleating fart.

In what is his most ambitious (and more than likely his last) recording project, Gilbert has now given us the complete cycle in live performances with the New York Philharmonic. I warmly welcomed his recording of Symphonies Two and Three, and (with one caveat) I'm just as enthusiastic about these two new releases. Nielsen's symphonies require a great orchestra, superb engineering, and a deeply sympathetic conductor who both understands and loves the music. Here we have all three. The New York Philharmonic is a virtuoso ensemble that can handle the composer's sometime impossible demands with grace and power. Dacapo's recording team (PrebanIwan and Mats Engstrom) has given us the most spacious, detailed, and transparent sound these works have ever received. And clearly Gilbert's interpretations spring from deep conviction and an abiding commitment to the composer. Those who know this music will be startled by how much expressive detail they hear, especially at the big climaxes, where even the best recordings often come up short.

Gilbert's tempo choices are, for the most part, well judged and convincing. But he also knows that the music must sometimes sound, as he said in a recent interview, "slightly unhinged and chaotic." In the First Symphony, he rightly emphasizes Nielsen's daring, but also gives the more lyric episodes (a lovely, pastoral slow movement) the warmth and leisure they need to blossom. In the Fifth, he builds the first movement to a mighty climax, and is no less compelling in the menacing fugue that fractures the second movement. His shaping of the "Andante poco tranquillo" passage blazes with an intensity that Bernstein himself might well have envied. As good as it is otherwise, Gilbert's Fourth cannot summon up the white heat--the explosive, primal violence--that characterizes Jean Martinon's performance with the Chicago Symphony. That's not just the definitive recording of the work, but also one of the great recordings of all time.

There are other distinguished performances of Nielsen's symphonies by the likes of Myung-Wha Chung, Ole Schmidt, Paavo Berglund, and Jascha Horenstein. Martinon's Fourth and Bernstein's Third and Fifth remain crucial documents that belong in any serious collection of Nielsen's music. Still, if you're looking for an integral set of Carl Nielsen's six symphonies in demonstration-quality sound, you need look no further. As I write this, Alan Gilbert has announced that he will soon be vacating his post as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Given the success of these recordings, that's sad news indeed.





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