Carl Nielsen: Symfonier 5 og 6
17 June 2015
Peter J. RabinowitzHere’s volume three of Alan Gilbert’s Nielsen cycle
(a fourth is scheduled with the three concertos). The two earlier discs garnered, on the whole, “yes, but” reviews from a range of Fanfare critics. True, James North, in his review of the First and Fourth, promoted Gilbert with the highest accolades: “Gilbert, with his resplendent, resurgent Philharmonic, is the ideal Nielsen conductor” (Fanfare 38:3). But other voices were more moderate: “Gilbert may not yet be as attuned to Nielsen’s music as other conductors are and have been,” wrote Jerry Dubins about the disc containing the Second and Third (36:4); he “leads polished readings that vary between exciting climaxes and rather tepid stretches where the line limps along,” noted Huntley Dent about the First and Fourth (38:4); Raymond Tuttle summed it up best by saying, also about the First and Fourth, that there was “‘Much to admire, less to love’” (38:4). I find myself joining the consensus: Although both of these performances have more power than Gilbert’s relatively disappointing Third, their general quality never quite brings them into serious competition with the very best that this repertoire has received.Virtues first. Gilbert has a fine sense of Nielsen’s quirky rhetoric:
The dramatic effects of his colors (listen to the uneasy stasis at the beginning of the Fifth, or the ominous grumblings in the Adagio section of the first movement, or the mysterious calm at the end of the third movement of the Sixth); the dizzying disorientation of his superimposed conflicts (note how well he maintains the individual profiles as contradictory music is piled up in the first movement of the Sixth); the misleading premonitions of things to come (try the disingenuous opening of the Presto section of the Fifth’s second movement); the emotional point of Nielsen’s unexpected dissonances and harmonic lurches. Gilbert usually has a fine ear for balances, too. The orchestra plays magnificently, with exceptional solo work (first clarinetist Anthony McGill deserves special praise in the Fifth), and a terrifying unanimity where required; and while no engineering can quite compensate for the limitations of the hall, the aural experience is more satisfying than anything I’ve heard live at Avery Fisher. If you buy this recording, you surely won’t feel that you’ve wasted your money.So what’s wrong?
Dent claimed that “Gilbert’s high-profile project is a little too civilized for its own good”—and it would be hard to deny that there’s a kind of caution here that’s seriously at odds with Nielsen’s aesthetic. I don’t mean to suggest that these recordings lack power or that they back off from the climaxes: Moments in the first movement of the Sixth will rattle you. But while they’ll rattle you, they won’t shatter you. Similarly, while no one could accuse him of trying to normalize the bizarre little second movement in the Sixth—a wind sextet with percussion that sounds as if it has wandered in from some other piece entirely—the performance could certainly be rougher and more antagonistic. Slowish tempos, too, occasionally interfere with the music’s momentum. It’s also worth noting that both of these symphonies were recorded at the same concerts—an apparent case of the economics of recording trumping thoughtful concert programming. In any case, the New York Philharmonic had (amazingly) never played the Sixth before—and hadn’t touched the Fifth for over a decade. Under the circumstances, a certain score-bound lack of bravado and risk is perhaps not surprising.