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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Concert Review: Distinguished, Not Extinguished

Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic continue The Nielsen Project.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Composer and conductor. Carl Nielsen and Alan Gilbert.
Photo of Mr. Gilbert by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
The task of expanding an orchestra's regular symphonic repertory is at once the joy and the burden of a music director. In the case of the New York Philharmonic's Alan Gilbert, currently in the middle of recording the complete orchestral works of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, it is definitely the former. This was the third of four concert series being recorded for release on Da Capo Records. Dubbed The Nielsen Project, the series will conclude next season with the last two symphonies.


This week, Mr. Gilbert and the orchestra offered listeners a chance to hear two Nielsen works that were new to this venerable orchestra. These works, the Helios Overture and the Symphony No. 1 were placed alongside Nielsen's more familiar Fourth to create a thrilling trip through this composer's catalogue. Together, this carefully chosen program made good argument for Nielsen as a major and unjustly neglected musical force, a craftsman who relied on a certain perfection of form to achieve inspired results.


Helios (inspired by the composer's trip to Greece) treads a careful middle ground between the imagination of Wagner and the formal perfection of Brahms. Its opening horn-calls recall the misty opening of Das Rheingold, giving way to stirring melodies that continue to surprise with their innovation and invention. The slow surge of the opening gives way to glittering strings and cascading fanfares that demand the highest level of execution from the heavy brass.

Given the conservative eloquence of Nielsen's First Symphony, it is remarkable that this concert (the Friday matinee and the last of this subscription week) was only the third live performance of this work by the Philharmonic. Here, Mr. Gilbert made the case for Nielsen's early effort, showing how the 27-year-old composer modeled his work on the structural perfection of Brahms without following slavishly in the older man's footsteps.

The stutter-start motto theme does remind one of the Brahms Third, but the resemblance ends as eloquent bird-calls in the woodwind quickly present the thematic material that is to follow. As the first section of the opening sonata movement presented itself, strings and brass engaged in a friendly argument with the woodwinds, with oboe, clarinet and flute holding forth against the rest of the ensemble. The Philharmonic players responded as if they knew the mics were on, responding ably to Mr. Gilbert's enthusiastic direction.

With a rhythmic pulse that seemed to swell and  breathe, the Andante enveloped the audience in its main theme before giving way to mournful, descending themes in the winds, a kind of cradle-song upon the rolling orchestral ocean. This gave way to the pounding, obsessive rhythms of the following dance movement, anchored by strings and timpani as the seas began to boil. In the Brahmsian model, the fiery final Allegro resolves everything that came before, with the bird-songs and brass fanfares returning for one last friendly argument, resolving in  a single bright chord.

If No. 1 is conventional, Nielsen's Fourth is anything but. Titled The Inextinguishable, this is a four-movement symphony played attacca subito, with each section leading logically (and without pauses) into the next. Ever seeking upward in its pursuit of inner radiance this work is also powered by two timpanists, positioned at opposite back corners of the concert stage. Their soliloquies, dialogue and yes, percussive battles are the engine that drives this tremendous work.

Mr. Gilbert led a passionate performance that balanced delicacy of expression with pure orchestral brawn In the first movement, he guided the listener into the complexities of the development before showing the way forward at the recapitulation. The slow movement, an unconventional intermezzo blurred into the following Andante. This built slowly, rising in almost Bruckner-like stages  to a climax of incredible power, only to die away and return to the opening bird-songs in the woodwind. The brass and double timpanists returned in the climax of the last movement, reproducing the dramatic "drum battle" that brought the Inextinguishable to its thunderous conclusion.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.