This release (part of a complete cycle for Dacapo) places the ‘Inextinguishable’ as the opener, but the place to start is with Carl Nielsen’s First Symphony, traditional in outline but with numerous diverting tweaks. It’s a robust and alluring piece, which Alan Gilbert conducts with purpose and affection, the New York Philharmonic in top form, responding to its music director with playing at once committed, powerful and sensitive, although the brass, trombones in particular, can be intrusive.
Nielsen (1865-1931), of current particular attention given it’s his 150th-anniversary next year, although his scores are worthy of all-round consideration. His debut Symphony (1892, first-performed two years later by the Royal Danish Orchestra, of which Nielsen was a violinist) is a confident work. The first movement is a proud, full-sailing achievement, with emotive lyrical asides. The succeeding Andante is a pastoral beauty, swelling in feeling and quite intense at times. Then the intermezzo-like third movement has many charms in its variety of mood, and which often touches the heart, and also suggests images (try seagulls flying above an island!). The fiery finale is particularly exhilarating here, confirming that the young Nielsen, from peasant stock, had put his rough-hewn yet sophisticated mark on symphonic form, and would do so five further times, and with masterpiece status.
And when he did so it would be in very different ways, true to himself and seeming to start afresh. The ‘Inextinguishable’ Symphony (1916) reports the conflict of World War One yet looks beyond it with hope and a sense of renewal. The opening music springs with energy from the traps, the atmosphere tense, sometimes eerie, dispute growing, which the New York Philharmonic reveals vividly and mightily. The end of the first movement (the Symphony plays continuously) closes with some vindication and cues a woodwind-dominated idyll of much charm, played here with much character. But it is the calm before the storm...
The third movement opens with screaming and forceful strings, anticipating similar expression from Shostakovich by a couple of decades (compare the slow movement of his Fifth Symphony). The New York Philharmonic strings really dig-in to this music before consolation arrives, movingly played, before the music once again builds in force and battle lets rip, graphically relayed by hectic strings (Gilbert has the violins sitting antiphonally) and two timpanists, vividly duelling, the music propelled along thrillingly. The Symphony is ultimately optimistic, giving aspiration for future life and achievement, something made blazingly clear in this New York account.
The Dacapo recordings, made at concerts (there are some coughs and noises-off, but with applause excised), are vivid and immediate. All in all, this is an impressive and recommendable release.