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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 1, FS 16, Op. 7 (1889-94) [33:03]
Symphony No. 6, FS 116, Sinfonia semplice (1924-25) [34:43]
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
rec. Danish Concert Hall, Copenhagen, 27-28 March 2000 (No. 1), 29 March, 10 April, 20 June and 31 July 2000 (No. 6). Co-production with DR/Danish National Broadcasting Corporation. DDD
previously released on Dacapo 8.224169
NAXOS 8.570737 [67:47]
Experience Classicsonline

I had planned to welcome this CD back into print, but thought I should check first. Lo and behold, the original Dacapo recording is still very much available! The advantages of that original are the more extensive notes and the cover art: an interesting portrait of Nielsen on the Dacapo vs. a spring landscape that could be anywhere. The advantage of this Naxos CD is, of course, the price.

The recordings, themselves, should be well known to all or at least most lovers of Nielsen’s symphonies. In short, these are two of the very best renditions of these works. Their main competition in terms of sound, performance, and interpretation comes from Herbert Blomstedt, particularly in his later recordings with the San Francisco Symphony. Those are also available at budget price in a couple of Decca two-fers containing a few other works of Nielsen as well. Schønwandt and Blomstedt are different enough in their interpretations of the symphonies to make both valuable, but the primary difference is in the sound itself. As recorded, the San Francisco orchestra seems somewhat beefier with a weightier bass, while the Danish orchestra is more transparent and lighter. Blomstedt’s accounts are recorded more closely and at a somewhat higher level than Schønwandt’s. By raising the volume slightly, the latter’s accounts are brought into sharper focus and compare very well with Blomstedt’s. While overall timings are fairly close, the two conductors diverge in certain movements. For example, Schønwandt is a bit slower in the first two movements of Symphony No. 1, but faster than Blomstedt in the last two. Blomstedt’s brass chorales in the third movement are more imposing than Schønwandt’s, but the latter’s finale has more bite. In Symphony No.6, Schønwandt takes more time with the first movement and impresses with his crisper articulation by the strings. Overall, Blomstedt’s orchestra is stronger in the brass and percussion departments, but his woodwinds are not as delectable as Schønwandt’s. However, I should point out that these differences are minimal in the larger scheme and preferences for one over the other are very much a personal thing. For example, I love the way Schønwandt brings out the flute, clarinet and oboe parts in the Sixth Symphony’s second movement, but miss the really rude trombone slides that Blomstedt provides. It must be said, however, that the Danes play this music to the manner born and their very fluency should not be taken for granted.

I am always struck by the greatness of Nielsen’s six symphonies. All of them are masterpieces and all have that unmistakable Nielsen sound. If the First Symphony shows influences of Brahms in places and the Sixth looks forward to Bartók and Shostakovich they are at the same time pure Nielsen. Every respectable collection of twentieth-century music should contain at least one set of these works and Schønwandt’s are as good a place to start as any, especially at the lower cost available now. For the record, these recordings use the new critical edition of the symphonies. Listening to Blomstedt and Schønwandt side by side, I could not discern any differences between the standard edition that Blomstedt presumably used and the new one. I imagine a close study of the scores would reveal some variants in scoring. The general listener, though, should find either recording satisfying. For myself, I have a slight preference for Schønwandt’s recording of the First Symphony and Blomstedt’s of the Sixth. Naxos is in the process of issuing the remaining symphonies, with the disc containing the Second and Third next. In the meantime do pick up a copy of this CD at your earliest opportunity, particularly if you don’t know these wonderful works.

Leslie Wright

see also Review by Dan Morgan



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