New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert – Carl Nielsen’s Fifth & Sixth Symphonies

Maskarade – Overture
Symphony No.5, Op.50
Symphony No.6 (Sinfonia semplice)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Elliott Schwartz

Reviewed: 3 October, 2014
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris Lee/New York PhilharmonicWe owe Alan Gilbert gratitude for initiating a long-term project to perform and record the complete orchestra music of Carl Nielsen with the New York Philharmonic. The present program completed the symphonic wing of the project. A focus on Nielsen’s work is long overdue; of all the great early-twentieth-century figures – Ives to Stravinsky, Schoenberg to Sibelius, Ravel to Bartók – he is the one who has been the most marginalized and, in some quarters, all but forgotten. (Two Nielsen Symphony Cycles begin soon in London, one conducted by Sakari Oramo, the other by Paavo Järvi – Ed.) It’s significant that Nielsen’s Fifth, generally regarded as the greatest of the six, was not introduced to New York Philharmonic audiences until the 1960s (conducted and recorded by Leonard Bernstein). More surprising still, the Sixth had to wait until this week for its NYP premiere!

There are reasons for this relative neglect. Nielsen’s language is highly individualistic, even downright eccentric, marching to his own peculiarly Danish drummer – in the case of these two Symphonies, a battery of different drummers. He enjoys moving from one style to another in Ivesian fashion, careening from tonality to atonal and/or polytonalism, and with vividly contrasting timbres.

The three pieces here showcased these features perfectly. One could dismiss the Overture to Maskerade (1906) as jolly and extroverted. But it provides a revealing harbinger of stylistic fingerprints that become critical in later works: ostinato patterns, tremolos of alternating pitches, raucous woodwind lines, and the use of percussion. All of these figure prominently in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (1922 and 1925, respectively).

The Fifth is cast in two movements, a fact which may strike some as daring for its time, notwithstanding the existence of five-movement works by Berlioz and Beethoven, and symphonic poems that are de facto symphonies with programs. It’s certainly possible to hear Nielsen 5 as a work in four or five contrasting sections, all but one of which is connected. The Fifth is a highly dramatic, powerful work – from the very opening with its wavering ostinato of violas set against a mysterious bassoon duo, sounding like a ghostly horn call. That duo material returns, played quietly by the horns at first, and eventually booming out in full brass during the finale. Another unforgettable sonority is the ff snare drum solo (some improvised) that won’t back down against furious orchestral competition, and tries to stop it. It is one of the most violent passages in the orchestral literature, and a reminder that the Symphony was written only a few years after the end of World War One.

‘Sinfonia Semplice’ is a much more enigmatic, almost revolutionary, piece. Those who heard its premiere must have been shocked, and even today’s audiences can’t help but gasp (or laugh) at Nielsen’s audacious scoring – trombone glissandos, piccolo cries, bell and woodblock interjections – and his quick-cutting between different styles and genres. Mahler and pre-empting Shostakovich may come to mind, but Nielsen’s approach to musical time-travel is much more outrageous. This is hardly a ‘simple symphony’, a whimsical surface that continually dissolves into other textures, undercut by darker elements, verging on hysteria at times, a carefree jaunt in the shadow of tragedy – in Nielsen’s case, awareness of impending death.

Alan Gilbert is the ideal conductor to take on this crazy-quilt musical language. He convinces the listener that the many conflicting (often warring) layers of the music are products of a single vision, and facets of one complex persona. Perhaps this is because Gilbert is a New Yorker who understands multiple exposure and discontinuity, and who has also spent a good deal of time in Scandinavia. It was obvious at this concert that he loves the music, and his orchestra played it with passion. The exposed instrumental passages were played beautifully – especially the lovely clarinet solo of the Fifth, by the Philharmonic’s new first-chair clarinetist, Anthony McGill. Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic and Nielsen make for an ideal collaboration.

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