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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 1 (1889-1894) FS16 [35.53]
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1901-1902) FS29 [33.48]
Bøhmisk-dansk folketone FS130 [7:29]
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Espansiva (1910-1911) FS60 [35.57]
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable (1914-1916) FS76 [34.08]
Andante Lamentoso - At the bier of a young artist [4:49]
Symphony No. 5 (1920-1922) FS97 [35.49]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Semplice (1924-1925) FS116 [35.31]
Kirsten Schulz (sop); Peter Rasmussen (ten) (3)
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Sept 1973 – Oct 1976. stereo. ADD
recorded in cooperation with Danmarks Radio
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 5008292 [3 CDs: 77.10 + 74.54 + 71.20]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a re-issue of the legendary Blomstedt recordings made in the 1970s. Nielsen has a unique voice among composers; there is something instantly recognizable about his music, something which, to me at least, seems indelibly Danish. The sound from the excellent Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra is warm and fresh, with the strings sounding silky at times, alongside some stunning wind playing.
The symphonies themselves have now become a mainstream part of the repertoire, but it is only relatively recently that Nielsen has become known outside of Denmark. The Danish are enormously proud of their national treasure - and rightly so - and my experience is that they have their own way of performing his works.
From the outset, it is clear that this is an excellent recording. Beginning with the first symphony, the listener is transported into Nielsen’s world of orchestral charm.  The opening bars are weighty and arresting, demanding to be taken seriously. This gives way almost immediately to some beautifully expressive wind playing and silky strings. There is a wonderful sense of clarity in this performance, the scoring allowing for the full orchestral strength juxtaposed with moments of chamber-music-like intimacy. The music is well paced, and flows almost instinctively. The climaxes are exciting, and the quiet moments are sensitive and delicate. The first movement ends almost as abruptly as it begins, full of energy and driving power. By contrast, the second movement is gentle and rounded, with Blomstedt coaxing a shimmering sound from the string section. The movement features beautifully performed solos from the oboe, flute and horn accompanied ably by the violins. The simple textures of this movement are filled with melancholy, and the climactic moments cannot help but engage the listener on every level. The chromaticism of the harmonies is deeply effective, changing the mood and atmosphere of the melody lines as they evolve. The gently undulating third movement brings to mind nature and seascapes, and once again, simplicity of line is paramount, over complex and colourful harmonic language. This movement demonstrates some excellent brass playing, and Nielsen’s wonderful orchestration. The finale returns to the strength of the opening, with rhythmic drive and vigour. A striking element of Nielsen’s music which is particularly apparent here, is the bass line, which is used to excellent effect and gives a strong grounding to the melody. The balance is such here that these bass lines share almost equal importance to the melodic lines, giving a welcome symmetry and breadth to the sound.
The opening of the second symphony, The Four Temperaments, is exciting and energetic, a bold and bright statement of intent which demands attention. This has always been one of my favourite Nielsen moments, and this recording was no disappointment. The expansive second theme is broad and rich, providing a glimpse of yet another aspect of Nielsen’s emotional range. This music is all about contrasts, and as soon as we become comfortable in a particular mood, the music transforms itself into something new. Although in essence this is Romantic music, this recording does not over-indulge and never wallows. There is once again some excellent playing here, most notably from the principal woodwind players and the strings. The two central movements retain Nielsen’s sense of natural innocence, the orchestra presenting the music in a straight-forward but convincing manner, full of uncomplicated emotion and subtle contrasts of colour. In this symphony, each of the movements characterizes one of the four Ancient Greek temperaments, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. The contrast between them is marked, particularly between the lethargy of the melancholic third movement and the joyous energy of the final sanguine movement. The finale is content, busy and unselfconscious, and one can almost imagine a cheerful person going about their business. The emotional impact here is less involved and perhaps more observational.  By contrast, the slower central section provides a brief moment of introspection and thoughtfulness before the triumphant return of the opening material.
Concluding the first disk is the Bohmisk-dansk folketone (Bohemian-Danish Folk tunes), a work for string orchestra commissioned by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1928 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Czechoslovakia. The work includes both Czech (The water flows, it flows) and Danish (Queen Dagmar lies ill in Ribe) folk tunes.  It is almost impossible not to draw parallels here with Vaughan Williams, due to the idiomatic and rich string writing and the early twentieth century harmonic treatment.
The second disc contains the third and fourth symphonies. The opening of the Sinfonia Espansiva (No. 3) is more edgy in tone than those on the first disc, perhaps betraying the age of the recording. However, this is only a small consideration, and the warmth of Nielsen’s orchestration combines with the energy of the players to give an exhilarating performance. The substantial first movement maintains momentum throughout, building towards the climaxes with a sense of purpose. The angular waltz section provides a welcome caricature, the music distorted into an almost grotesque and humorous form.  There is some magnificent brass writing, giving those instruments the opportunity to shine. The second movement, andante pastorale, is for me, at least, one of the most beautiful moments of all of Nielsen’s output. In this recording, the strings provide a wonderful introduction with rich, blended sounds, preparing the way for well-performed and well-crafted woodwind solos. The alternation between wind and strings paints an image of rural Denmark which is full of tranquil beauty. The bass-driven climax suggests an ominous presence, tempered by the sublime entry of the two solo vocal lines. This is a moment of genius, with Nielsen using the voices to add colour to the orchestral sound. The vocal performances here by Kirsten Schultz and Peter Rasmussen are well executed. The Allegretto is full of quirky charm, with angular melodic lines in the wind section giving the music its character. There are many features of this movement which betray Nielsen’s interest in the neo-classical, but none more so than the fugal sections, which demonstrate the composer’s technical prowess.  The symphony ends with the grandiose Finale, hymn-like in its opening theme. The music gives way once again to charming melodic lines, heard in imitation throughout the different sections of the orchestra. The playing is once again always convincing, with each section balancing the others well and creating a satisfying overall sound. The triumphant climaxes and sweeping lines are all-consuming, and the music cannot help but grab your attention.
The fourth symphony, subtitled The Inextingushable is yet another musical tour de force, demonstrating Nielsen’s abilities as a progressive symphonist. His work has the full strength of Mahler, but without the complication; it has a strong emotional impact, but in a happier, less tumultuous way. This was the first of his symphonies that I ever heard, as a teenager, at a time when I was absorbed by Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Nielsen’s voice was as strong as those, but with a fresh perspective that I found instantly appealing. As a modernist, Nielsen’s symphonies are imaginative and unique; his development of progressive tonality helped to change the course of symphonic writing for generations of future composers. This recording of the Fourth Symphony is full of power, and makes a great impact. Once again he alternates between solo wind lines, monophonic chorales and full orchestral forces, making use of the full array of sounds available to him. His percussion writing is sparse, but used to excellent effect. There are resonances here with Shostakovich, particularly in the violin outburst at the opening of the third movement and the ensuing imitative writing through the string section. This is an exciting work, with all four movements heard without a pause. There is a strong driving force throughout as the music unfolds, and the performance is once again consistently solid. One of the most notable features of this work, and often the most talked about, is the timpani duel in the last movement. This was no less exciting here, with good stereo separation making my living room come alive.
The second disc also contains one other string orchestra work, the Andante Lamentoso – At the Bier of a Young Artist, composed in 1910 for the funeral of the young Danish artist Oluf Hartmann. This is a short (just under five minutes duration) work, full of heartfelt emotions, sincerely performed.
The 5th symphony, heard on the third CD of this set, is thought by many to be Nielsen’s great symphonic masterwork. The opening is much gentler than in his other symphonies, building to a distinctly militaristic feel, with its distinctive side drum writing (performed here by Ib Jarikov). This work has a much more modernistic feel than the earlier works, and is more akin to Shostakovich than Romantic composers. Formed of three movements in six sections, this is a symphony that is full of contrasts, vigour and impetus. The fourth section conjures up images of witches and magic, and seems to have a life of its own. By contrast, the slow and peaceful Andante un poco tranquillo has its own introspective power. This is a formidable work, darker than his earlier works and with an underlying sense of conflict. The music is presented here in a determined and dramatic performance.
Nielsen’s final symphony, the sinfonia semplice, is a mature work with references to childlike innocence (such as the opening repeated glockenspiel notes, which were borrowed by Shostakovich in his own final symphony, the 15th). The opening melody is simple and memorable, perhaps even a little nostalgic. Where the 5th symphony provides conflict, the sixth provides resolution, as though the dark forces were kept at bay. Completed in 1925, six years before the composers’ death, the modernist feel has been retained, even developed further, and Nielsen is very clearly looking to the future.  He makes departures from the symphonic form in its usual sense; structurally, his writing has evolved far beyond traditional first movement sonata form, and the second movement only uses nine instruments from the full orchestral forces – piccolo, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, trombone and percussion. There is a notable bassoon solo in the finale [0:24], with an ensuing set of variations which break down further boundaries in the approach to symphonic writing. This movement seems almost like a concerto for orchestra in its own right, showcasing different instruments as the work unfolds.
It is fascinating to listen to all the works of a progressive composer such as this in close succession, as one can trace his development of the symphonic form. The performances here are consistently good and the players are clearly committed to communicating the composers’ intentions. There are some well-performed solos, and some excellent performances from all sections of the orchestra. Blomstedt takes the lead with a clear musical vision and provides a dramatic account of the works. Most enjoyable.
Carla Rees

see also review by Rob Barnett 


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