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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 2 Op.16 The Four Temperaments (1901-02) FS29 [29.24] *
Symphony No.4 Op.29 The Inextinguishable (1914-16) FS 76 [32.39] #
Helios Overture Op.17 FS39 (1903) [12.20] #
The Fog is Lifting (Taagen Letter) Op.41 (1920) [2.05] +
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Morton Gould *; Jean Martinon #
James Galway (flute) and Sioned Williams (harp) +
rec. Chicago, June 1966 (No.2), October 1966 (No.4) December 1966 (Helios) and London, February 1986 (The Fog is Lifting)
RCA RED SEAL CLASSIC LIBRARY 82876762372 [76.29].

American critics rave about this coupling. Can’t see it. More to the point I can’t hear it.

Much as I admire Morton Gould, both as composer and elsewhere as conductor, I have to rate his recording of The Four Temperaments as a total failure. One doesn’t want to reach into the barrel of clichés when describing this but objectively speaking it’s a crude and rather vulgar performance. The first movement is hardly collerico and the flashy, too-extrovert posturing is full of a bewildering incomprehension. Transitions are awkward and unnatural sounding; phrases are milked for optimum externalised pleasure and not for true expressive effect. Where elsewhere in classic recordings – say the Jensen – rugged individuality is the key, here the door is unlocked with sleek superficiality. This is all too depressingly true in the second movement – too loud and fast to effectively characterise the Phlegmatic – and indeed is a characteristic of the whole performance. The third movement sounds like film music – with a homogenised conformity from an orchestra that sounds, technically fine though it may be, utterly devoid of understanding. Ignoring the finale’s 132 to the minim Gould slashes through to the end without much hint of giocoso – this is a mini concerto for orchestra in his hands and as nuanced as punch in the solar plexus.

Martinon’s performance is not nearly so bad but then that would be barely possible. But again the platitudinous Chicago sound wrecks much of the turmoil and Martinon prefers to cut through the syntax where a less pressing tempo would bring greater rewards of tension-building and internal drama. Sonorities are more individualised and personality-full in Scandinavian performances of an earlier generation – let’s instance Grøndahl in 1951 – especially in the second movement. In the third Martinon sculpts those tragic moments with great immediacy but it’s Grøndahl who sculpts the whole with real understanding; with him it’s not one moment but a series of waves of intensities. Granted there’s a great deal of detail audible in Martinon’s recording and a fast and exciting finale but the performance as a whole lacks grandeur.

Helios is decently enough done but the Galway flute encore is unnecessary in this orchestral context.

I’d warn off any Nielsen neophytes from acquiring this disc; they’d be far better directed to either of the historic performances cited or to a plethora of modern discs. Strictly for home-team consumption only.

Jonathan Woolf


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