Nielsen: Symphonies No. 5 & 6 / Gilbert, New York

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This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

Nielsen was a high energy composer, perfectly suited to a “muscle” orchestra like the New York Philharmonic. Listening to these two performance we are reminded how the world of classical recordings has been taken over by orchestras of the second rank–professionally adequate, ambitious, able to fund their own recording programs and often to get released on major labels, but singularly lacking in the sort of corporate virtuosity and ensemble balances at all dynamic levels so tellingly in evidence here. If you like your Nielsen big, bold, and gutsy, then this is the cycle you need to own.

This doesn’t mean that Gilbert and his players are in any way crude. The opening of the Fifth Symphony emerges with gossamer delicacy, and the solo wind playing is as sensitive as one could wish. But the hostile snare drum entrance carries real menace, while the movement’s adagio second half, beautifully spun out by the strings, features the best percussion cadenza since Horenstein, leading to an absolutely apocalyptic climax. Similarly, Gilbert brings thrilling energy to the start of the second movement. The ensuing quick fugue isn’t as swift as some, but the orchestra’s weight of tone, its attention to detail, makes the music unusually vicious, while the race to the closing bars has seldom sounded more exhilarating.

The Sixth Symphony can come off as sort of a bitter, denatured coda to the previous five. Again, without minimizing the work’s etherial moments and often stark instrumental textures, Gilbert and the orchestral put the meat back on the music’s bony skeleton. The climax of the first movement is really terrifying, the Humoresque vividly grotesque. In the Adagio “Proposta seria,” the strings dig into their parts with painful intensity, leaving a finale in which Gilbert ensures that each variation has its own vivid character. The wacky waltz, even in it’s ghostly early stages, seethes with a latent energy that makes sense of the violent eruptions from the brass and bass drum that rip it apart shortly afterwards.

One textural note: these performances seem not to be using the latest Critical Edition of the symphonies–you can tell from the fact that the loud timpani triplets are still present towards the end of the finale’s opening section, to cite one example. This is not a wrong decision; the Critical Edition took an excessively dogmatic view in its efforts to present Nielsen’s first thoughts, eliminating revisions based on the practical realities of performance, even if these were accepted–whether tacitly or explicitly–by the composer. Nielsen was never faced with a situation like Bruckner’s, in which a crew of well-meaning but misguided supporters altered and manifestly falsified the basic text. Additions and modification to his scores were limited mostly to small but sometimes telling details, such as the additional timpani part just mentioned.

The excellent live sonics add to the tactile immediacy of the performances. If the foregoing sounds as though this team saved their best for last, well, I would say that they did. One quibble though: the booklet notes, by Jens Cornelius, are surprisingly poor. He seems to think that the snare drummer in the Fifth Symphony is a timpanist, and his language is both pretentious and stilted. Normally I wouldn’t care or mention it, save for the fact that it seems so odd and uncharacteristic. Never mind, it’s the music that matters, and about that there can be no question whatsoever. This is fantastic.

– David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 6220625

  • UPC: 747313162567

  • Label: Dacapo

  • Composer: Carl Nielsen

  • Conductor: Alan Gilbert

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: New York Philharmonic