Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931) Symphony No. 5, Op. 50 (1920-22) [36:57] Symphony No. 6,
Sinfonia Semplice (1924-25) [34:28]
New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert
rec. in concert, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 1-3 October 2014. DACAPO 6.220625SACD [71:25]
This third volume - a sumptuously produced SACD with stylish
booklet and stimulating notes - completes the Philharmonic’s Nielsen
symphony cycle (see also Nos.
1 and 4 and Nos.
2 and 3). It anticipates a fourth volume with the three concertos.
Coupling Nos. Five and Six is chronological but unusual: the works were
composed in quick succession but are stylistically distant.
Gilbert’s Fifth and Sixth are a clear Record of Month,
a stunning artistic and administrative achievement fully realizing the
high expectations at the outset of this Danish-American collaboration.
It does answer the question, what will happen if you put two twentieth
century masterpieces coming from a small but musical nation into the
hands of a world class orchestra - and one which under Bernstein
in the nineteen-sixties had already provided an answer.
The Music Director’s task was overwhelming. Under the continuing
reverberations of half a century from Bernstein’s big bang - an
incandescent recording of the fifth symphony - could Gilbert equal the
recorded event? Could Dacapo justify a new recording merely by offering
Well, here’s the answer. Alan Gilbert has seen something completely
different in the score - and not just the new Carl Nielsen Edition in
which a team of international scholars finally solved the scandal of
the old mess of modified and error-ridden scores of Symphony No. 5.
Let’s put it like this: the composer noted in pencil on a score
“restive forces … alert forces” which is the closest
we will get to a title. Bernstein’s performance is alert, energetic,
indeed visceral, and thus unforgettable. No recording before or after
will explode in the skies as this landmark recording did.
Gilbert sees the “restive forces” for what they are and
allows the music - or rather his pre-eminent musicians - to generate
tension by precision and beauty of tone and melody. In so doing they
are playing with each other and complex dialogues emerge with clarity
which I have not heard before. Happily this is captured by the engineers
in concert performances. They set up an onstage “tree” of
microphones to capture the three-dimensional natural acoustic like human
ears, but very wisely, if slightly artificially, added outriggers which
enhance the inner details. The result is a bouquet to Preben Iwan of
Denmark’s Timbre Music.
In my opinion one of the three competing projects (Nielsen Symphonies
on SACD) has slightly disappointed us with sound: Colin
Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra gave brilliant performances
which were not vividly recorded although LSO Live have disagreed
with me on this assertion.
Here the New York musicians are caught in the act. Where their ancestors
were frenzied and energetic, here they allow the score to unfold leisurely
but it works from the first bar. The cosmic murmur on the strings, which
can be indistinct, is here sharp and detailed; you are prepared for
an experience which is fully engaging and engrossing. In its eloquence
you are captivated until the closing notes. The playing is polished
and impeccable. I need not have worried about the snare drummer: he
obeys the composer’s instruction to try to obliterate the orchestra
but it is a controlled outburst of energy. There are too many new insights
to make a list and it is enough to say that — although for the
price of this disc you can buy a complete cycle — you will be
missing a glimpse of heaven by failing to purchase. This is a premium
product but already prices vary online. The sleeve-notes, contributed
by Jens Cornelius, offer unprecedented insight to the music, so far
removed from the formulaic information or downright pedestrian standard
I left a full week before turning to the Sixth Symphony, worried that
lightning rarely strikes twice on one disc — especially with pieces
in stark contrast. I have strong and controversial views on Sinfonia
Semplice. It is a very eccentric work which divided opinion from
its première and was said — well into the nineteen-sixties —
to be Nielsen’s weakest symphony, the product of a sick man; indeed
he was dying painfully from Angina Pectoris, a disease not amenable
to medicine in those days. Now, thankfully No. 6 is rated as arguably
his greatest symphonic statement, though not, perhaps likely to prove
more popular than his triumphant fourth and fifth.
From the start, the composer created ambiguity by telling friends it
was simple and “pure music” — absolute rather than
programmatic. However, he contradicted himself and indeed, the music
betrays its own clues of quoting and imitating not just his earlier
music but also that of other composers’. All so very brief that
if you blink you will miss them. My own insight as Nielsen’s biographer
is the constant personal reflections, and so, along with the first and
third symphonies, the Sixth is, in my view, subtly autobiographical.
I’m sure Nielsen knew this and indeed, once confessed to his first
symphony being “far too personal”.
I will never forget my first encounter with Nielsen’s Sixth, a
valedictory document of what it means to be alive and what it means
to be slowly leaving the world; Nielsen said he would rather be dead
than restrained. I was physically thrown to the ground and left in shock
by Thomas Jensen’s studio recording of 1952 with the Danish Radio
Symphony Orchestra; Jensen was a musician who played under the baton
of the composer. Issued by many labels internationally it is now available
on a Danacord CD (review);
previously on Dutton (review).
I still say that this symphony is one of the most powerful human utterances,
comparable to poems, scriptures, paintings or great novels. It’s
true power is devastating. No wonder the great and the good people of
Denmark on listening to its first performances were bewildered and shocked.
It confirmed their sneering at a talented rebel about whose affairs
their tongues wagged.
For three decades, the Sixth Symphony was infrequently performed in
concert or recorded. There were few exceptions to the neglect and the
“historic” mono recordings of Nielsen’s colleagues
and their successors did a good job in transmitting this strange Scandinavian
masterpiece. Then came the “humanist” breakthrough of the
nineteen-sixties when the work was discovered by great conductors like
Ormandy who recorded it for CBS, now Sony Classics (review).
In our day musicians tackle it with ease and listeners are no longer
puzzled by the leaving behind of the Romantic genre, the unpredictable
jumping about, the juxtaposition of themes, the liberty with the rule
book, in short, modern music. Modern music — done right —
is actually far more demanding of talent, even genius, by the composer
and by the performers. There is no rule book but there is the great
need to make music.
This leads to my point. Here is Nielsen’s Sixth as you or I have
never seen her before. It makes relevant Nielsen’s infamous and
inglorious collision with Bartok. The latter embraced modernism while
the Dane believed in humanism. When he completed his Fifth Symphony,
Nielsen was presumably aware that he had taken the traditional symphony
of triumph over struggle (restive forces … alert forces) to its
peak. Time perhaps to write “a concerto for orchestra” but
on his own terms?
Gilbert once again allows the symphony to speak for itself, or, as I
have pointed out, he allows the musicians to “sing rather than
shout.” As with the coupled performance of the Fifth the pace
is leisurely but not for one moment slack. Once again, the listener
is gripped and involved. I doubt that you will glance out of the window
or read the sleeve-notes. It is true that one might miss the programme
elements in favour of what I perceive as the “absolute music”
its composer spoke about. You do not hear the composer’s visceral
cries of pain, the screeching violins, the heart attack, nor the “raspberry”
at the end which Bryden Thomson described as Nielsen’s defiant
gesture. Less biographical, less hysterical, no sudden heart attacks,
but the persuasive performance I am sure would have pleased its author.
Needless to say, Gilbert sees the joke of the second movement but passes
it on with style. What a great achievement. It crowns his Nielsen symphony
cycle by untangling a great paradox.
There are two premium priced cycles in competition. Shortly before his
death Colin Davis recorded a Nielsen Symphony Cycle for LSO
Live and the three SACDs are very distinguished in performance with
many insights from one of the greatest conductors of our time. From
BIS, who already have two great symphony cycles in the catalogue (Myung-Whun
Chung; Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg and Osmo
Vänskä/BBC Scottish Symphony) we have a new cycle on SACD from the
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic under the baton of Sakari Oramo (4
In Gilbert’s project issued by Dacapo, we have landmark performances
of Nielsen’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies, twentieth century masterpieces,
faithfully recorded, lavishly presented in DSD — digital recordings
that really work. This is awe-inspiring. Volume three reflects the astounding
Second and Third symphonies and anticipates the forthcoming release
of the concertos. The fall from grace with symphonies One and Four,
noted by others, proves that the gods are also controlled by blind fate
and leaves us open to the variety of interpretation that others have
brought to the table.
Footnote The 5.0 surround track
has an unfortunate fault. The right and centre channels are reversed.
This completely throws an otherwise fine recording because the sound
field collapses to the left. If the user can easily reverse the R and C
leads then the sound picture is excellent.