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Carl NIELSEN (1865 – 1931)

Symphony No. 1, Op. 7 (1891-92)
Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments", Op. 16 (1901-02)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra – Jukka-Pekka Saraste
recorded in the Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland, 26-27 March 2001 (No.1) and 2-3 March 2001 No. 2 - DDD.
FINLANDIA 8573-85574-2 [63.31]

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I am somewhat puzzled what Finlandia’s release strategy is with this latest issue in Nielsen’s symphonic cycle. This is the last disc in the series, with the remainder having been released at full price, two symphonies per disc. But we have also had the 4th and 5th Symphonies at budget price on an Ultima double, coupled with the Clarinet and Flute Concerti plus a couple of small orchestral pieces, so I wonder if a budget release will be made for the others. How strange the strategies of the record companies.

Still, no matter, for here we have superb performances of both these early symphonies which can hold their own with any current performances, even including those of live recordings by Nielsen’s contemporaries Erik Tuxen and Launy Grøndahl on Danacord DACOCD 351. No. 2 particularly is extremely vital, which makes a wonderful change after some other modern performances, which smooth the contours of these wonderful works.

The overall characteristic in my opinion of these early symphonies, is that of vitality and both of these performances display this characteristic to the full.

The Finlandia recording is superb, and the orchestra is set in a fully believable acoustic. According to the notes, the recording was done in the Sibelius Hall in Lahti, the new home of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra has improved in all departments over the years, and is now a first rate ensemble. Put into a superb acoustic the improvements are noticeably superior.

The first symphony was written before the composer had written much else, and given these circumstances, Nielsen’s ability to create a fully reasoned expertly crafted symphonic argument such as we have here is incredible. There are not many composers who could write such a mature symphonic work as this at the first attempt, and it is we who benefit from the composer’s facility.

We have here a traditional four movement work, with the slow movement occupying its traditional second place, followed by an intermezzo and rapid finale. This is not particularly notable – where Nielsen was at the forefront was in the key structure of the work. The work starts in C Major, but the first movement is basically in G Minor. As the work progresses the tonality progresses from G Minor to C Major. This is similar to what Mahler was experimenting with, and both composers came to much the same result simultaneously, albeit totally independently.

The second symphony was a further development of the tonality tried out in the first, and also had a semi-pictorial programme, the symphony being based on a woodcut which Nielsen had seen in a pub when out with his wife and friends. This woodcut showed in four pictures, the four temperaments of man – Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine. These form the basis and character of the four movements, and once again Saraste and his orchestra put these characteristics very clearly in front of us, the lucky listeners.

I would now rate this Nielsen cycle at the top of the modern cycles. The only criticism could be of a comparative nature concerning the technical quality of the orchestral playing. For example the standard of the playing of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra with Blomstedt on Decca could be considered to be marginally better. The performances are just as good – go buy the Finlandia.

John Phillips


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