Nielsen: Symphonies 1 & 4
19 September 2014
Steven A. Kennedy
Two years ago, Dacapo released what was a announced as a significant new Nielsen symphony cycle featuring the New York Philharmonic and their director Alan Gilbert. The historic return to Nielsen’s music with this orchestra was also marked in that review of the 2012 release of the second and third symphonies as they had not been done there since Leonard Bernstein programmed them in the 1960s/1970s. The present release is also pulled from live concert performances this time recorded more recently (March 2014). Paavo Berglund and Herbert Blomstedt are both noted interpreters on disc of Nielsen’s symphonic work. Gilbert’s approach tends to create a bit more space for outer movements while being fairly close in his slower movements in terms of general time. Some may find these slightly more expansive interpretations interesting as the emotional punch is certainly heightened by the edginess and attention that occurs in a concert setting versus the studio.
Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is still a bit of an acquired taste. He wrote six symphonies (1894-1924). His first symphony (Op. 7) is a bit more traditional sharing a Nordic sensibility found in the early symphonies of Sibelius, or the work of Grieg as one would suspect. However, this is not a traditional symphony but instead one that reinvents concepts of themes presented in shorter segments often with powerfully-scored emphasis. Nielsen was also trying to free himself of more academic formal concerns which some feel weaken this early essay. Though beginning in g minor, the whole piece finds itself winding around to a different key by its conclusion. Some of this harmonic tension is what makes this a fascinating work. More recently, his compositional approach is linked to the swirling motifs of the Danish Art Noveau. While there may be folklike influences, these too are vaguer than one might expect in a piece of its time. One might find explorations of the landscapes of Northern Europe in this music. Nonetheless, it is a work that can be quite odd for some hearing it for the first time.
One might say the same of the composer’s fourth symphony which bears the subtitle ‘The Inextinguishable”. Though cast in four movements, the conception is of one long, continuous and interconnected series of sections. The first movement starts with a burst of energy before moving into sweeping lyrical thematic presentation that will later prove to be a core motif that will hold things together. Sometimes the gestures are almost Beethoven-esque in their victorious climaxes but with a definite modern, and perhaps Nordic, twist. Towards its center there seems to be a growing intensity and tension, a sort of battle between forces (perhaps belying the stormy middle of WWI). Things become a bit more innocuous in the allegretto second movement; mostly a lighter setting focusing on winds and lending a sense of an innocent everyday carefree life. This gives over to a more intense despairing third movement with more sinuous lines for strings. A bit of hope begins to show through with an almost religious like feel at times. The final movement is a rather fascinating affair with a showdown of sorts between timpani as the music swirls and grows to an ecstatic conclusion.
In what seems to be a modern sequencing choice, the two symphonies are presented out of historical order. It may make it harder for those new to the pieces to appreciate them on their own terms. The fourth is an accessible modern symphonic work with the first having one foot in each century. The performances here are really quite amazing and are superbly captured in great sound here. There are moments when one forgets we are listening to an American orchestra as the ensemble has managed to gain a real understanding of the style and aesthetic of this music under Gilbert’s leadership. It will continue to be interesting to watch what future projects will continue to remind the world of the world-class symphony residing in NYC. This is easily recommendable for those looking for a more recent survey of the first four Nielsen symphonies and we can hope the remainder are not far behind.