Had a chance to hear Nielsen's 4th symphony live last night--the first performance, the program tells us, done by the NSO since 1985, which is decidedly f'd up. Because upon hearing it one is left with little doubt that Nielsen's symphony is a completely remarkable piece of music, and that its tremendous impact really must be experienced live.
Nielsen is a master of many things--of suspense, of ecstatic climax, of dazzling harmonic invention--but to think the 4th symphony is only fireworks (and dueling timpani!) is wrong. It is also a work of Brahmsian melancholy and deep introspection. It's a work that reminds us why we go to the symphony.
How it is still relatively unpopular in this country should be a great mystery (nice rundown from A. Ross here). Nielsen's appeal to the Kennedy Center audience was palpable, the electric energy of the "Inextinguishable" far more than they had bargained for with the sedate first half pairing of one of those national-flavored tone poems by Sibelius and the Beethoven 4th piano concerto (played with much fleetness but frequent unpleasantness of tone by Nikolai Lugansky).
As led by Thomas Dausgaard, the NSO played the Nielsen with fearless abandon, clearly reveling in its novelty and its challenge. Our (my) experience with the Nielsen 4th is limited, of course, but its hard to imagine anyone walking away from this NSO performance with less than a desperate hunger to hear more Nielsen on American programs.
The last time I looked at the seating chart, coverage looked fairly grim, though the house was respectable on Thursday night. For those of you considering attending tonight (Saturday) what with the discount tix and all, you should obviously do it--you won't see another NSO concert this exhilarating for a while...
Update: Anne Midgette spends a lot of time on the flaws of the Beethoven, but does have this to say about the Nielsen:
It’s a piece that grabs you by the throat and leaves you flattened, culminating with a pitched battle between two full sets of timpani, positioned at opposite sides of the orchestra, that evokes nothing so much as trench warfare (the piece was written during World War I) [...] Dausgaard couldn’t get the orchestra to play with all the finesse one might have wished for, but he got a lot of blunt force out of them, and muscled the concert back into the realm of the viscerally exciting where it had begun.