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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 7 (1889-94) [33:18]
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 The Inextinguishable (1914-16) [35:57]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Alan Gilbert
rec. live, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 12-15 March 2014
DACAPO 6.220624 SACD [69:15]

I described the first disc of Gilbert’s Nielsen cycle (symphonies 2 and 3) as an artistic triumph. Released a full two years later, the second volume in the Danish-American “Carl Nielsen Project” has disturbed me. This appraisal feels like my most procrastinated and anguished record review. Thanks to the editor for accepting the delay and apologies to readers for the long wait.

Speaking of glacial speeds, the New York performances began after two years of preparation and anticipation. A further three years elapsed between the recording of the first and second symphonies. Symphonies 5 and 6 are in the pipeline for issue on CD. The Clarinet Concerto has yet to be recorded for volume four. Perhaps the creative energy simply evaporated.

What we have here is still impressive: polished playing presented in warm, three-dimensional sound — in short a fine engineering achievement. Normally my reviewing problem with Nielsen’s first and fourth symphonies is becoming so engrossed in the music that I am unable to take notes and make comparisons. The Inextinguishable is a symphony I want to play to its resolution, not to analyze. Switching to the first symphony, I felt both New York performances were routine but I could not trust my judgment. I have persisted until confident that something is wrong and that something can be defined.

Nielsen’s symphonies are rich in biographical content, or at least they reflect the composer’s powers of observation and memory through his independent perspective. This, I suspect, has something to do with his background. He was post-modern and progressive. His mother was traditional, religious, and cautious. She was superstitious and full of folk wisdom. Nielsen’s father was a roaming free-spirit, liberated, wild and witty. Both parents were musically gifted but lacked formal training.

When, many events and decades later, in Denmark’s cosmopolitan and sophisticated capital, Nielsen began to compose his Fourth Symphony the world was in turmoil. Forced to leave his beloved family for marital infidelity and passed over for promotion in the orchestra his bags were packed to start a new career in Germany. From neighbouring Germany in 1914 he read daily of the senseless slaughter; of men called to battle and mowed down on a scale previously unimagined. Military pride and patriotism became what Nielsen described as “a spiritual syphilis” — a horrible disease. The world was turned upside down.

Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony is a controlled outburst of anguish. It is heard to its best advantage in a live performance. Gilbert’s is a live performance — or a series of takes — yet it is arguably slick and sterile. Comparing two recent recordings, both on SACD, I found Colin Davis (LSO Live LSO0694 - review) to be suitably fast and furious. On the Swedish label BIS we have the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by Sakari Oramo (BIS-2028 - review) well able to leave a convincing account of the music to posterity.

Predating these modern performances the Recording Angel has preserved an “authentic Nielsen” – historical reissues, predominantly Scandinavian orchestras recording in mono for 78rpm, shellac discs. Then came another era of Nielsen interpretation, around the centenary of the composer’s birth in 1965 - the humanist discovery of Mahler, Sibelius … and Nielsen. Perhaps this was the Golden Age of Nielsen’s powerful, humanistic music. For sure, we have incandescent recordings by Leonard Bernstein, especially the legendary recording of the mighty Fifth Symphony - my personal epiphany, a discovery that, thanks to BBC Radio 3, I will never forget. In the Fifth Symphony the composer reworks the theme of violence and the survival of life from his Fourth to a higher level, and in so doing, Carl Nielsen created one of the twentieth century’s greatest symphonies; perhaps the greatest.

Reviewing the Fourth symphony on disc, however, one of the most successful recordings reproducing the world gone mad, a bit like the organized chaos depicted in Haydn’s Creation, was by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Originally on CBS: MK 42093 from 1986, reissued but not re-mastered in a 6-CD 58423 Sony box set. For me it remains a benchmark recording. The young Salonen’s musicians go berserk, pouring out music like bullets as if in mortal combat, not only in the famous duel of the timpanists. The energy is overwhelming and the listener cannot leave this performance unaffected.

In Nielsen’s First Symphony, a great conductor must reflect the perceptions and emotions of the young composer; bold and hesitant. Amongst modern recordings I find Douglas Bostock’s account with the Royal Liverpool grows on me as more and more convincing. It's available in various issues and collections. Incidentally Bostock’s eighth and “round up” collection of the orchestral music of Carl Nielsen on CD Klassisk CDK 1044 has a searing account of Nielsen’s tone poem Saga Dream with the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra.

For me, under Gilbert the New Yorkers are flawless and civilized. If the new cycle from New York was expected to celebrate the panache of their ancestors from the swinging sixties, then in my view it is quite the opposite. Gilbert loves this music but he lives in the corporate age that does not take risks, does not do drugs, and does not wear heart-on-sleeve. Give me Leonard Bernstein, crazed, lunatic, genius, musician, any time.

Jack Lawson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan and John Quinn