NIELSEN: Symphonies (complete); Violin Concerto; Flute Con.; Clarinet Con./ var. soloists/ New York Phil./ Alan Gilbert – Dacapo (4 SACDs)

CARL NIELSEN: Symphonies (complete); Violin Concerto; Flute Concerto; Clarinet Concerto – Erin Morley, sop./ Joshua Hopkins, bari./ Nikolaj Znaider, violin/ Robert Langevin, flute/ Anthony McGill, clarinet/ New York Phil./ Alan Gilbert – Dacapo multichannel SACD 6.200003 (4 SACDs), 72:23, 69:20, 71:25, 77:16 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

I’ve said it before and probably will say it again—I find Alan Gilbert to be a boring conductor. Little that he has done on record, with the exception of a couple of modern pieces, impresses me. And in concert I have not been that thrilled either. Fully admitting that maybe it’s just me, receiving this set in the mail posed a bit of a challenge; having just given the Colin Davis set on LSO Live a Multichannel Disc of the Month designation back in July and having been quite thrilled with the performances—as were all of us at Audiophile Audition that had a part in the review process—I felt assured that a tremendous letdown was in the offing.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Gilbert, for all the quirks of his temperament, has somehow latched onto Nielsen with a fervency and utterly dedicated discipleship that proves bewildering in its acceptance of the Nielsen challenges (classical clarity versus windswept anti-German romanticism) and conquering spirit that permeates each of these sensational pieces. He seems to come alive here as if awakening from a long-standing lethargic melancholy where the sun finally shines gloriously. I have never heard a series of Gilbert recordings so electrifying in conception and flawlessly executed by an obviously energized New York Philharmonic. (The New York Classical Review called their playing, somewhat anachronistically, as “rough”—they must have been listening through earpieces.) Perhaps it’s the few years Gilbert spent in Scandinavia that got this music in his blood. These readings are bejeweled diadems of exquisite clarity and almost antiseptic delineation of line—I don’t think I have ever heard a Nielsen performance as brilliantly contrasted as No. 4, The Inextinguishable. The playing is almost too perfect—though I am not completely sold on some of Gilbert’s tempos (he makes too much of the fugal episodes when compared to Colin Davis’s more measured and forceful nuances) he nonetheless has a good feel for the music and a masterly conception of the tempo relationships.

For good measure, you might want to check out the previous reviews. We liked all the symphonies, though the Davis recordings edged them out star-wise:  Nos. 1 & 4;   Nos. 2 & 3Nos. 5 & 6.

Symphony No. 1 surprised me a lot; I did not think Gilbert capable of the romantic thrust needed to sell this work, often compared to Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony in terms of its relationship to what would follow, but he finds the thrill of the moment without playing up to the overblown and sometimes ridiculous musical hyperbole that often besets readings of this early work. Nos. 2 & 3 are sterling examples of manicured excellence, certainly not as forceful as Bernstein, but better played and lovingly assayed. I might mention that am not bothered by the diminished clarity that Mr. Moon heard in his review—the recording is quite clear to my ears. No. 5, the most scarred of all the pieces because of its post-war associations and questioning premises, still emerges in a triumphant light even if that light is a façade. The “Simple Symphony”, No. 6, is Nielsen’s version of the “Classical” by Prokofiev, very tongue-in-cheek, quirky, and far more interiorized than the others, a curious conclusion to a creative set of symphonic work.

The three concertos make a wonderful finale to this set, time-honored tradition dictating that the two woodwind pieces feature the stars of the Philharmonic sections. Bernstein again created the standard with the marvelous Julius Baker and Stanley Drucker, but Langevin and McGill cede nothing to them in these sparkling performances. The Violin Concerto is more competitive, yet even here an established force like Znaider holds his own against virtually all comers.

Gilbert has done a fine job here in adding to the considerable Nielsen legacy established in New York by Leonard Bernstein. If not quite to that level they are also not far away, and Bernstein never had sound like this. Davis remains my preferred SACD combination as he seems to have the absolute pulse of this music consistently though each work (and his set, though missing the concertos, is half the price of this one and includes a Blu-ray with everything on one disc. Nevertheless, Davis could also learn a thing or two from Gilbert in his extraordinary balances, and the Dacapo sound beats LSO Live—also outstanding—by a nose. Nielsen fans must be drooling, and will have to have both.

—Steven Ritter

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