Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6
07 July 2015
American Record Guide
This completes the Carl Nielsen symphony cycle from this source. It has been an interesting project, marked by outstanding playing and powerful interpretations. The two on this program are as compelling as what has gone before but in a slightly different way.
Most performances I’m familiar with see Symphony 5 as a vast, mysterious, and powerful landscape that exudes a rugged, mystical quality. This one is gloriously even-handed and straightforward, with few points of emphasis and no exaggerations. Everything rolls out smoothly, at a slightly slow tempo, with dignity and effortless execution. Textures are impeccably sculpted and blended. The slow, warm opening is contrasted by a sharp speedup at the tempo change and an unusually but tastefully aggressive snare. The clarinetist displays less flair and panache than his predecessor, Stanley Drucker; but his stability and expression have their own strengths.
The second half of I is somewhat held back and just a little lacking in energy, save for the excellent snare drum. It is impressive how gradually and evenly things sustain and build through the brass without getting excessive or sounding difficult. The more animated II displays the same control and refined discipline. The lively sections are even-handedly rolled out, as Gilbert continues to revel in the beauty of the score and the orchestra’s reading of it.
All this leads to two questions. Do you want a performance like this, or would you like something with more character than beauty, perhaps with some rocks on that landscape? This one is a great orchestra demonstrating how great it is, like a large, wonderfully engineered German sedan, and there is nothing wrong with that.
A point that may enter decisively into the discussion is the discmate, in this case Nielsen’s notorious Sixth Symphony. To my knowledge, it has never been absolutely determined if Nielsen was adventurous, brilliant, or crazy when he wrote it. It is a difficult work for some Nielsen lovers to deal with because its spiky, wiseguy audacity is so different from most of the composer’s output. This performance plays down those qualities by taking the same clear-eyed, serious approach that Gilbert took with the Fifth Symphony. The result is a Sixth that has “matured” into something resembling more conventional Nielsen.
Speaking relatively, I is refined, sophisticated, and smooth. Some of its bumptiousness is retained, but as with the Fifth, this is a reading that revels in the beauty of the playing. II sometimes sounds like a polished divertimento for bassoon, clarinet, and snare. With III we hear a typical, though more neoclassical Nielsen sound that is clear, full, and serious, with special attention to the strings, as well as clarinet and bassoon. The bassoon opens IV with a wonderful solo that begins like a scherzo but grows more serious to the point of approaching anger before it returns to the mood of II. The passages for snare and xylophone, followed by string pyrotechnics and brass chaos, are all powerful, but still polite. And speaking of polite, the infamous contrabassoon blat that ends the work would be acceptable at a high society garden club meeting. This is not a Sixth for everyone, but it might appeal to someone who is not that fond of the work but could find it worthwhile if it was dressed up in formal attire.
The sound is excellent in terms of timbre and detail; it may be the best of this series. If you’ve liked Gilbert’s Nielsen so far, you should like this entry, too.