Nielsen: Symphonies 1 & 4
07 November 2014
Graham WilliamsIt has been a long wait of more than two years since the first issue in Dacapo's Nielsen Symphony cycle from Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic was released – a coupling of the composer's 3rd and 2nd Symphonies Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 - Gilbert, so this second volume comprising Nielsen's 4th and 1st Symphonies is most welcome.
Both symphonies were recorded live at Avery Fisher Hall, New York City in March 2014 and the liner notes inform us that the recording was made in the DXD audio format (352.8kHz /24-bit). The sound quality throughout is very fine indeed, and engineer Preben Iwan is to be congratulated for managing to achieve such a clear and spacious result in a venue whose acoustic has often been the subject of criticism.
Comparisons with the earlier release reveal that the capture of the hall reverberation is now more natural and that the orchestral image is marginally closer to the listener. There are small traces of audience noise picked up by the microphones, a rustle here and a discreet cough there, as is to be expected from live performances. More disturbing is the conductor's tendency to stamp on the podium – try from 9'37” into the third movement of the 4th symphony. These minor flaws, however, pale into insignificance when the overall excellence of Gilbert's performances are taken into account.
The playing of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra again shows that they are still one of the world's great orchestras. Strings possess a glowing richness and warmth, woodwinds are characterful with every solo beautifully phrased, while the burnished lower brass and fabulous horn section thrill with every entry. Gilbert's use of antiphonally divided violins also adds immensely to the appreciation of Nielsen's string writing in both symphonies and, whether playing softly or very loudly, timpani are captured with amazing fidelity – though I would have liked to have heard a greater separation between the two sets of battling timpani in the finale of the 4th Symphony.
I was surprised to find that Gilbert's tempi for each of the four movements of the 1st Symphony match, within a few seconds, those adopted by Colin Davis in his 2012 recording. Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 6 - Davis .The propulsive approach adopted by both conductors is admirably suited to this work though Gilbert has the advantage of incomparably better sound.
It must be mentioned, however, that the elephant in the room is the rival Nielsen cycle from Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra on the BIS label that began with a stunning performances of the 4th and 5th Symphonies Nielsen: Symphonies Vol. I - Oramo.
Many collectors will surely wish to wait for both cycles to be completed, hopefully by next year, the 150th anniversary of Nielsen's birth. In the meantime this latest release can be confidently recommended.