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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 6.220625 SACD [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 superior engineering?

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 issue.

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 and 5).

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.

Jack Lawson

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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. 

Dave Billinge



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