The New York Philharmonic is a powerhouse orchestra, Nielsen is a powerhouse symphonist, and Alan Gilbert revels in the music’s energy and dynamism. I had the great joy of attending one of the performances of the Third Symphony from which this recording was compiled. As everyone knows, Avery Fisher Hall doesn’t have the best acoustics, and I was sitting in the balcony directly opposite the brass section. The sheer volume of sound that the players produced was stunning, literally. Fortunately, Dacapo’s engineers have managed to achieve a very natural and lifelike ensemble balance in these recordings, without in any way compromising the guts and gusto of the playing. Sample the big waltz from the Third Symphony’s first-movement development section (sound clip below) and you’ll immediately hear what I’m talking about.
As already suggested, Gilbert’s interpretations take no prisoners, and frankly that is just what Nielsen needs. The Allegro collerico opening of “The Four Temperaments” is really ferocious, the finale almost giddy. And yet, Gilbert’s tempos in the Andante pastorale of the “Espansiva”, or the Andante malincolico of the “Temperaments”, are also perfectly judged, sensitive, and expressive. The former, especially, reveals a combination of tranquility and flow unique in the work’s discography. The string playing is particularly beautiful here, and the Philharmonic’s woodwinds, solo oboe especially, do themselves proud in music that often relies on their artistry and character. Gilbert also very convincingly paces the tricky finale of the same work, with its hymn-like main theme that still has to sound “allegro”.
Dacapo, of course, already has an excellent Nielsen cycle—indeed, the reference edition—in its catalog, featuring Michael Schønwandt and the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (also available on Naxos). So the question must be whether or not this newcomer is distinctive enough to warrant the duplication, and the answer is a definite “yes”. Gilbert reveals a genuine affinity for the music, and Nielsen’s athleticism suits the orchestra very well indeed. If this series keeps up as it has begun, it’s going to be stupendous.