NIELSEN: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor LSO Live The hard-hitting, viscerally charged symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen have yet to find their deserved place in the repertoire of US orchestras, but they have made somewhat more headway in Britain. The latest convert appears to be Colin Davis, who has been performing and recording these works with the London Symphony Orchestra. The first fruit of that project, a disc devoted to the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, was recently issued on the LSO’s in-house label.
The Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable,’’ written between 1914 and 1916, is a work of epic collisions, as Nielsen’s late-Romantic, folk-inflected optimism was brought face-to-face with the brutality of the First World War. This fierce work answers in the affirmative — “Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable,’’ the composer wrote — but its victories are extremely hard-won. The breathtaking Fifth, written in the early 1920s, drifts out of a ghostly haze from the strings and never quite shakes off its lingering sense of unease.
Davis does not have a long track record with Nielsen’s music but his gift for rendering large-scale symphonic canvases serves him well in these exciting live performances. The climaxes of the Fifth arrive with momentum and ruthless clarity.
The Fourth, conceived without movement breaks, is delivered here with a masterly sense of sweep. The LSO strings exude a burnished warmth in the slow movement and the ensemble as a whole dispatches the work’s finale, with its famous two-timpani blitz, as the gripping drama that it is.
PLAIN SONG, FANTASTIC DANCES Boston Symphony Chamber Players Music by Bolcom, Foss, Gandolfi, and Golijov BSO Classics It’s hard to know what one admires most in the Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ new disc: the choice of music (recent works by American composers who have collaborated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra); the crisp, elegant playing; or the recording itself. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, is an ideal venue, and the BSO Classics engineers have captured the musicians in clean detail, and with just enough of a bubble around the sound for the brass punctuation in Lukas Foss’s “For Aaron.’’
This tribute to Aaron Copland, premiered on Foss’s 80th birthday in 2002, calls for 12 musicians; trumpet, trombone, and timpani join the usual BSO first chairs, plus BSO assistant conductor Julian Kuerti to hold them together. After fleeing Nazi Germany, Foss was studying at Tanglewood in the early ’40s when Copland was there, and wrote the sketches on which this piece is based. One hears Copland’s lean textures, bright woodwind solos, nostalgic mood, and playful country dances. Indeed the older composer’s shadow is so strong, it’s difficult to tell where Copland ends and Foss begins.
Famous for his cabaret songs, genre-crossing operas, and, lately, big choral and orchestral works, William Bolcom produced something fine and intimate in “Serenata Notturna’’ (2005). This 20-minute work for oboe and string quartet drinks deep in Mozart. Like the Salzburger’s serenades, it starts graciously and playfully, and slowly gathers weight and seriousness, almost without our knowing it. The second movement contains a lovely duet for oboe and violin against plucked strings that suggests a restless dream state. The oboeist John Ferrillo plays exquisitely.
Between comes Michael Gandolfi’s “Plain Chant, Fantastic Dances’’ (2004), which opens in a similar harmonic vein as the Foss and Copland (a Gregorian chant serving as the equivalent of a Shaker hymn), and wanders through a tango to a contrapuntal tour de force. Osvaldo Golijov’s “Lullaby and Doina,’’ an adaptation of two pieces written for a film score, closes with a pealing muezzin in the oboe and the aromas of Middle East. The Gandolfi, Foss, and Bolcom works are world premiere performances. American chamber music, it seems, is alive and well, and a lot of fun.