recordings of Nielsen's symphonies – other than the fourth –
were once a rarity, the catalogue is now full of Nielsen cycles,
many of them very good. This is good news all round, because
these symphonies are some of the finest written by any composer
in the early 20th century. They hold their own against all comers, even those written
by the likes of Elgar, Sibelius or Mahler. The inevitable result
of this sudden surfeit of excellent recordings, though, is that
some of the older ones tend to disappear. So it has been with
Salonen's Nielsen cycle. These two performances, together with
his recording of the second symphony, are probably the pick
of the bunch. Collectors will be glad to have a chance to acquire
them again on demand from Arkiv.
first movement of the Espansiva is strongly characterised here and bristles with energy. Herbert Blomstedt
(in his second performance with the San Francisco Symphony on
Decca, rather than his earlier reading on EMI) and Myung-Whun Chung on BIS may project the opening chords with greater
urgency and confidence, but Salonen finds an icy lyricism in
the surging chromaticism that follows. He does indulge in expressive
rubato at the transitions – listen to the way he slows all action
at about 1:50 in, for example – but this tendency is not overly
distracting. He moves the action along with sympathy, and if
the hurdy-gurdy waltz towards the end of the movement is robustly
lyrical, rather than explosive as it is with Järvi and Chung,
this is a point of difference rather than a fault.
second movement has a lovely Brahmsian glow to begin with, morphing
into a Sibelian shimmer, as the thematic material is passed
upwards through the strings. There is some lovely woodwind
playing here too. Both vocalists are fresh and lovely, and
third movement is very fine, with Salonen's tempi and dynamic
control imparting an edgy otherworldliness to the music. The
finale is grand but austere. Both movements feel a touch deliberate
next to Chung's more fantastical approach and Blomstedt's straightforward
brilliance. Overall, this performance is a very good one, though
it does not displace Chung at the top of the heap. Instead
it sits just below Blomstedt and above Järvi as an instructive
alternative view of the score.
Semplice inhabits a different sound world.
Where the third symphony shows Nielsen coming to the height
of his powers and creating music of dramatic force and splendour,
the sixth is the music of an older man commenting on his own
music and the new contemporary music of the world around him.
the third symphony received a good performance from Salonen
and co, the sixth fares even better. From the opening bars,
you can sense that Salonen is right inside this music, reveling
in its playful, quirky irony. The first movement has, in his
hands, a light off-kilter neo-classical feel. His touch is
lighter than Järvi's and Blomstedt's and it is this very lightness
of touch that makes his performance of the sixth so disarmingly
stringless and sparsely scored second movement Humoreske is
quickly dispatched. Salonen's skill as an interpreter of 20th century music stands him in good stead here in Nielsen's parody of
modern trends. The percussion and woodwind interplay that in
this movement sounds mildly mad, and the yawning trombones are
pert. The contest between the divided strings in the third
movement is stirring, with the antiphonal effects cleanly captured
by Sony's engineers. After ambiguous interplay, Salonen brings
the movement to a gentle bucolic close, before the chattering
of woodwinds that opens the neo-classical final movement. As
in Nielsen's two previous symphonies, sections of the orchestra
play against one another, but with Salonen it is not so much
a contest as a case of two musical forces moving onwards, each
oblivious to the other's existence. That is, until the waltz
sequence gets moving. It starts gently enough, but what was
light and fluffy gets tougher and refuses to be drowned out.
The final helter-skelter and peasant dance are perfectly judged.
In sum, this is as fine a recording of Nielsen's enigmatic sixth
as you are likely to find.
orchestra play this music with feeling and sensitivity. The
Stockholm brass do not exhibit the swaggering confidence of
their San Francisco counterparts, and the Göteborgers under
both Chung and Neeme Järvi are more energised. The strings
play beautifully, though, and although the Swedish RSO cannot
match San Francisco for brilliance or its Swedish neighbour
for sheer heft, the balancing and blending of parts is of the
recorded sound is fine and warm, although it feels a little
light in the bass. Decca's sonics for Blomstedt are in a class
apart, but Sony's sonics here seem realistic, if less razzle-dazzle.
you are coming to Nielsen for the first time, this disc is probably
not the place to start, if for no other reason than it comes
without liner notes. There are decent cycles to be had for
bargain prices, including Blomstedt's superb Decca cycle, which
features consistently excellent, straightforward performances
and demonstration class digital recording. There is no better
way for a new initiate to come to Nielsen for my money, though
I should note that I have not heard the pioneering Ole Schmidt
set, most recently reissued by Regis. For the extremely budget conscious, the Naxos cycle is not to be
sneezed at. If you want this particular coupling, though, or
are keen to hear Salonen's take on Nielsen, look no further.
This disc is worth the outlay.