Gilbert, New York Cap Nielsen Cycle With Power, Flair

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Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic at the Filharmonia Narodowa in Warsaw, Poland, in October 2010.  (Photo by Chris Lee)
Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic at the Filharmonia Narodowa in Warsaw, Poland, in October 2010.
(Photo by Chris Lee)

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6. New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor) Dacapo 6.220625 (SACD Surround)

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — New recordings by the New York Philharmonic were once omnipresent in record shops, especially when Leonard Bernstein was cranking out album after album for Columbia Masterworks. They’ve still been recording prolifically under music director Alan Gilbert, who will be leaving in 2017, but you have to click on iTunes to find the vast majority of his Philharmonic recordings, for they are available only as downloads.

Carl Nielsen Symphonies 5&6 DacapoIt would appear at this point that in the now-old-fangled area of “physical product” — as the marketeers want us to say — Gilbert’s major recorded legacy is going to be his complete cycle of Nielsen’s six symphonies for Denmark’s Dacapo label. The previously released performances of the Symphonies 1 through 4 have been quite good overall — only the Third Symphony was a bit lacking in atmosphere — and these new recordings of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are the best of the now-completed cycle.

In his day, Bernstein punched some Nielsen into the Philharmonic agenda, recording the Second, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies in New York and touching off a minor Nielsen boom in the 1960s in the process. But his attention went elsewhere before he could complete the cycle, and his successors showed scant interest, if any, until Gilbert grabbed hold of the exuberant, quirky, sometimes enigmatic music of the great Dane.

All seems to be going well in the craggy Fifth Symphony as Gilbert grapples firmly with its battle-charged passages in the first movement and hard-fought resolutions in the second movement. The New Yorkers are clearly in prime, powerful form, and the percussionist manning the outboard snare drum is encouraged to go deliciously bonkers in the first movement.

Nielsen coverIn the Sixth, which is all at once a world-weary, cynical, whimsical, satirical departure into something new, Gilbert’s yen for progressive programming finds an outlet. He really lets fly in the wacko Humoresque movement, with its peculiar twittering winds, subtle and battering percussion, and sliding trombone, and in the strangely disconnected solos, fanfares, dances, and outbursts in the finale.

However, when you play Gilbert’s versions alongside those of Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony (Decca) — the only other American orchestra to record a Nielsen cycle — you’ll find that Blomstedt is even more passionate and tumultuous in the Fifth and just as whimsical and more inflected in phrasing in the Sixth. Decca’s engineers also capture a deeper, more plush sound than Dacapo.

So while Gilbert is competitive in Nielsen and is clearly keeping the Philharmonic in scintillating condition, Blomstedt-San Francisco remains the benchmark in this music. Blomstedt’s earlier cycle with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, now on Warner Classics, is also worth a listen.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.