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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 5, Op. 50, (1920-1922) [36:57]
Symphony No. 6, ‘Sinfonia semplice’ (1924-25) [34:28]
New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert
rec. live, Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 1-3 October 2014
DACAPO SACD 6.220625 [71:25]

This is the third volume in Alan Gilbert’s Nielsen cycle, recorded live in New York. With it he completes his survey of the symphonies though a fourth disc containing Nielsen’s three concertos is due for release later in 2015. The first volume in the series, which covered the Second and Third Symphonies received an enthusiastic download review from Dan Morgan. I reviewed the second volume, containing the First and Fourth symphonies last year.

It’s just been announced that Alan Gilbert is to step down as Music Director of the NYPO in 2017. By then he will have completed eight seasons in the post, not an especially long tenure. However, he feels it’s best to leave and allow a successor to be installed before the orchestra has to vacate Avery Fisher Hall for a couple of years during an extensive hall refurbishment, currently planned to begin in 2019.

This new account of the mighty Fifth Symphony, surely the peak of Nielsen’s symphonic output, strikes me as being something of a mixed result. The first of its two movements starts quite promisingly with a suitable level of tension. Nielsen ups the ante significantly at around 4:28 in this performance when timpani and lower strings start to hammer out a two-note ostinato; here the music becomes much more threatening. I think the trouble with this present performance is that the recording is rather close and up-front – a characteristic of the series to date – and so the entire percussion section, including the already-ominous side-drum, is too prominent for my taste. The percussionists should makes their collective presence felt but on this occasion we’re made too aware of them. There’s a fantastical, wild clarinet descant during this episode and the New York clarinettist delivers this in a suitably manic yet controlled fashion. There follows a long Adagio section — helpfully tracked separately by Dacapo. This is introduced by a four-note oboe motif. Gilbert is disappointingly quick at this point; the oboe solo just sounds slick. Osmo Vänskä, on his 2000 BIS recording (review), ensures his oboist has enough space to phrase the motif and invest it with meaning.

The adagio itself is nobly sung by the NYPO strings, joined later by the horns; hereabouts the playing has distinction. Midway through this section (track 2, 5:05) the side-drum assumes a crucial role, the drummer being instructed to play as if to disrupt the music. It’s a disturbing and highly original passage. In my experience no player has ever matched the invention and daring of Alfred Dukes, who played on Jascha Horenstein’s 1969 recording with the New Philharmonia for Unicorn-Kanchana. Dukes simply throws his whole kitbag of tricks into the mix, rim-shots and all and the result is unforgettable. The Horenstein account may not be perfect but it demands a place in every Nielsen collection if only for this passage. I’d despaired of ever hearing a player match Dukes – live or on disc – until I heard Heather Corbett on the Vänskä recording. She may not quite equal Dukes but, my goodness, she runs him close. The New York drummer, who is uncredited but I suspect is the principal percussionist, Christopher S. Lamb, is pretty imaginative and disruptive of the music, though not quite in the league of those other two players. The snag is that he’s too prominent. That may sound an odd thing to say when Nielsen has sought to have his player seek to disrupt the music but the point is that the drummer doesn’t succeed. The tremendous displays by Dukes and Corbett, though incredibly distracting as they should be, remain integrated within the orchestral sound, albeit prominently, and we still hear plenty of Nielsen’s brass and woodwind writing. In this New York performance the drum is too dominant so that when the rest of the orchestra prevails (6:30) their triumph rather comes from nowhere and the impact of the moment is somewhat diminished.

As I noted when reviewing the previous instalment in this Gilbert series, the BIS recordings of Osmo Vänskä’s performances present the orchestra at a greater remove from the microphones and one has the impression of a concert hall ambience, albeit that of an empty hall. Despite the distancing relative to Dacapo one can still hear plenty of detail in the Vänskä performance and there’s a better sense of perspective. I find it a more pleasing listening experience. I also think Vänskä often has an interpretative edge; for example, in the bars immediately before the adagio he conveys hushed suspense in a way that Gilbert doesn’t achieve.

The second of the two movements is divided into four tracks on this recording; that’s useful. The opening section of the movement goes well in this New York traversal. The performance is lively and the NYPO’s playing is energetic. Mind you, Vänskä also surges dynamically; indeed, I’m inclined to think he has an edge here. When the Presto string fugue is reached (track 4) Gilbert’s performance is decent but somehow I think it seems just a bit deliberate; that’s more to do with the articulation of the music than the actual speed. As the rest of the orchestra gradually joins the fray that impression is reinforced, especially when the heavy brass enter sounding, well, heavy. Vänskä’s reading, by contrast, is lighter on its feet, even when the full brass section becomes involved. I suspect that the respective recorded sounds may have something to do with that, but it’s not just a matter of sonics; it’s also about the way the two conductors get their orchestras to articulate the music. The subsequent Andante poco tranquillo episode is dominated by the strings. The New Yorkers play with great beauty for Gilbert but the music seems to lack a bit of purpose; there’s something of a sense of drift despite the surface beauty. When I turned to Vänskä I found that he inflects the music more, not least through the use of accents; in his hands you feel that the music is going somewhere. In the concluding pages Nielsen reprises material from the beginning of the music and this ending comes off well with both conductors.

Nielsen gave his Sixth Symphony the title Sinfonia semplice but I find it anything but ‘simple’. It’s a decidedly strange and elusive work. The orchestral forces are not significantly smaller than those stipulated for the Fifth but Nielsen uses the orchestra with greater restraint and the textures are usually transparent and sometimes spare. Perhaps it is for this reason that the close Dacapo recording didn’t seem at a disadvantage compared to the BIS sound for Vänskä’s fine performance, which was set down in 1999 at the same venue as the Fifth. Indeed, while I really like the BIS sound – and Vänskä’s reading - the fact that Dacapo presents the Gilbert performance in rather more primary colours is actually an advantage at times.

There’s delicacy and definition in the way Gilbert gets the NYPO to play in the first movement. He achieves good transparency and this is a very likeable performance that’s not short of character. The second movement is entitled ‘Humoresque’ and marked Allegretto. It’s a very quirky creation and here we’re right in the territory of Nielsen’s Wind Quintet (1922). The woodwind playing here is very well pointed and there are some truly bizarre brass glissandi – I hasten to add that they are deliberately and rightly bizarre. The New York strings come into their own in the third movement, the ‘Proposta seria’ and make a fine job of it. The finale takes the form of an amazingly inventive and often very unusual theme and variations. Not the least unusual passage in it comes when a series of brass irruptions intervenes in what has been a rather charming waltz variant. It’s in this movement and the second that the Dacapo sound-picture is a positive asset because Nielsen’s extraordinary orchestration registers very well. Gilbert and the NYPO do this movement very convincingly and, in fact, I judge their performance of the symphony as a whole to be pretty successful.

In summary, then, I don’t feel that Alan Gilbert has the better of the exchanges with Osmo Vänskä when it comes to the Fifth but he seems to have the measure of the Sixth.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~~ Jack Lawson (Recording of the Month)