Nielsen: Symphonies 1 & 4
13 October 2014
With this 2014 release on DaCapo, Alan Gilbert continues his exceptional SACD series of the symphonies of Carl Nielsen, performed with high energy and technical brilliance by the New York Philharmonic. One doesn't often find audiophile recordings by this orchestra, but the NYP seems to have a special connection to Nielsen's music that goes back to the important recordings Leonard Bernstein made with them in the 1960s, and the hybrid multichannel format is an ideal way to do justice to these multidimensional works.
The Symphony No. 1 and the Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable," were separated by a little more than two decades, but the distance between them seems much greater because they straddle the Belle époque and World War I. Both symphonies show Nielsen's characteristic folk-like themes, strong propulsion, and rugged counterpoint, but the Symphony No. 1 was influenced by Brahms and shows a late Romantic harmonic richness, while the Symphony No. 4 is more linear, transparent in textures, and sharply modernist in outlook, with a quirky approach to progressive tonality that is also shared by the Symphony No. 5 and the Symphony No. 6, "Sinfonia semplice."
Gilbert treats each work on its own terms, so the taut sonata form of the Symphony No. 1 gives rise to a rather muscular performance, while the discursive developmental sections of the Symphony No. 4 make its interpretation seem freer and more rhapsodic by comparison. The orchestra demonstrates its best playing throughout, with clear separation of colors and a wide dynamic range, so the super audio showcase is fully warranted.