Nielsen: Symphonies 1 & 4
29 October 2014
I have always loved nearly all the music of the dynamic and very unique Danish composer Carl Nielsen. His music bears a resemblance to Sibelius in places with hints of Richard Strauss but his harmonic palate and his orchestrations are uniquely his. For many concert goers, Nielsen is hard to assimilate and, therefore, only sparingly programmed.
I happen to like all his six symphonies, but in particular these two. Personally, I think “The Inextinguishable” is one of the best symphony names ever. At first reading, it seems a little pompous – maybe it is; but Nielsen explained that “Music is life, and like life itself, music is inextinguishable.” So, in some way the noble, driving and propulsive nature of this amazing and sometimes brooding work is intended to extoll human resilience. (This is especially telling when we discover that the composer had just emerged from a tempestuous divorce and that his country had just survived the First World War relatively unscathed. Some of Gilbert’s tempi here are a bit faster and perkier than what I am used to in, say, the Karajan recording but I love the piece and very much like this recording.
The first symphony is, understandably, quite a different work. In 1891, Nielsen was trying to develop a more overt national style of composition for Denmark, somewhat akin to the much more “obvious” nationalistic tendencies of Grieg in Norway or Sibelius in Finland. The Symphony No. 1 is very classical in its structure but, unlike the work of much of his contemporaries, his strokes are bolder, phrases are truncated and the harmonies are, occasionally, daring. It is a very fine work which suffered at the time from being exactly too daring; too unique. Nielsen remains a concert hall rarity due to both the “heady” nature of the writing but, frankly, the difficulty but I like these performances and think this recording might make for an ideal “first Nielsen CD” for a reader.
As to the performances and interpretations, the New York Philharmonic already has a bit of a history with Nielsen with Bernstein having made landmark recordings of all four symphonies, and the wind concertos. Bernstein’s Nielsen symphony cycle on Columbia remains some of my favorite recordings in pressings that were quite good for the day. When Alan Gilbert took over the Philharmonic there was a certain amount of controversy for his inexperience, his lack of name recognition and other factors that it seems the Phil has largely overcome. When these works were performed live earlier this year, the New York press was uniformly positive.
The Dacapo sound and engineering here is at its usual high mark. This recording sounds great and – as I said – I am already a fan of these works. I hadn’t bought or heard a New York Philharmonic recording for a while, especially under Gilbert, but I think this disc shows that talk about “the good old days” (which is also all the rage in Chicago and Boston as well) is unnecessary in New York, from what I can tell.