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Carl August NIELSEN (1865 – 1931)
The Symphonies
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 Op 7 FS16 (1890-1891) [33:11]
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments Op 16 FS29 (1901-1902) [32:06]
CD 2
Symphony No. 3 Espansiva Op 27 FS60 (1910-11) [36:51]
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable Op 29 FS76 (1914-1916) [33:57]
CD 3
Symphony No. 5 Op 50 FS97 (1921-1922) [34:45]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia semplice FS116 (1924-1925) [34:48]
JanŠček Philharmonic Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
rec. 2005, Concert Hall Ostrava, Czech Republic. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92885 [3 CDs: 65:55 + 79:04 + 69:45]
Experience Classicsonline

In response to my review of Bostock’s Nielsen symphonies and the search for ‘the best recorded cycle’, a MusicWeb International reader asked why I had not mentioned the one on Brilliant Classics. I must confess that I had overlooked it and apparently so did The Gramophone and the Penguin Guide. Your editor requested this review on his desk by Monday morning! The task: to audition six major symphonies in one weekend.

You have heard it said, do not judge a book by its cover. Well, do not judge a CD by its poor artwork, missing credits, nor its low price. The notes by David Doughty, however, are original and illuminating but what about the music? Can the Czechs cut the mustard? Does Nielsen have to be idiomatic and if so is it only Danes or Scandinavians who are fully centred?

Perhaps this cycle’s greatest achievement is to prove once and for all that Nielsen’s works are squarely in the European symphonic tradition although many of his songs are Danish. Theodore Kuchar, if I am correct, does not set out to ‘speak Nordic’. Carl Nielsen travelled extensively and was well-aware of central European music including the Brahms/Wagner debate long before he completed his first symphony in 1891. Arguably, CD heritage proves that Austro-German musicians do not feel the pulse of Nordic music. Here we have the Bohemians let loose - so how do the civilised Czechs compare to the earthy Liverpudlians?

It is a clash of cultures. In my Bostock review I refrained from comparing his brass to the northern English band in case it might be construed as derogatory. Not so, yet the mellow brass of the Czechs makes the point essential. JanŠček - with proper emphasis on the acute Š syllable, incidentally - may well be the composer with closest parallels to the Dane. His eponymous orchestra is absolutely world-class. The musicians have beautiful instruments which are played with enthusiasm and ensemble for Mr Kuchar, a conductor in great demand these days, and we can hear why.

We can hear it thanks to the conductor’s ear, a perfect acoustic, and most of all thanks to the balance and sound engineers. Again and again I caught many fine details for the first time. Complex passages revealed layers with greater ease than I have noticed. This adds significantly to the conclusion that this set is very special.

I plunged into Four and Five —which I opined that Bostock performed well but did not displace fierce competition. These monumental symphonies in a good live concert can engulf the listener. Only rarely on CD a Kubelik or a Kondrashin - and a Bernstein - pulls it off in the more sterile studio environment. Without a doubt we now place Kuchar on this pedestal, or rather podium. It is a combination of his spontaneity and control. In Four there is always reserve which builds to new peaks, the energy held back as it were, but power radiates from the precision. You sense that more is coming … the surprising tempi of the first movement … and then the famous timpani duel at the end remains musical rather than manic and gains in every way. Same with the side-drum in the Fifth. One might point to the composer’s instructions to allow the player to overwhelm the orchestra, but the restraint serves to drive the music even harder rather than halt it. It shows great musical judgement.

So, the Fourth and Fifth symphonies —the highest hurdles — are accomplished with apparent ease. Now I am intrigued. Start at the beginning of the set. Symphony No. 1 is simply glorious: the Andante gives me the wistful landscape I missed with the Liverpool recording. The Czechs’ energy makes their pace sound motivated but it is not fast, and their expansive timing at 8:08 compared to 6:55 makes my point.

After three masterly symphonies I am getting excited but exhausted. In the search for the ultimate Nielsen cycle I have the least expensive (3 CDs for the price of one) and three ultimate performances. I don’t believe in a six-planet alignment, such eclipses can’t happen … or can they?

On to Symphony No. 2, where my all-time favourite is a one-off Stokowski live event in 1967 recorded by Danish Radio and recently restored to the catalogue by IMG. Unbelievably, yet unarguably, Kuchar outwits and overtakes the great Stoki, creating the finest Four Temperaments I have ever experienced. Modern stereo sound closes the case for Kuchar. By now the perspiration is dripping and the prospect of six symphonies auditioned over a weekend is achievable: despite fatigue the adrenalin drives me on.

The Third Symphony Espansiva, someone told me, was performed on this set without the vocalists, thus uncredited; but fortunately my informant was confused. The first movement is so beautifully played that, unusually, I was not anticipating the glorious entry of human voices, but rather savouring each moment of the approach. There was, as ever, not a foot put wrong in the Third Symphony, but for me the Second had overshadowed it. I decided to postpone the enigmatic Sixth Symphony to the following morning.

We know that with Sinfonia semplice Nielsen challenged Danish musicians of the 1920s and lost some admirers. After many decades modern musicians show that the trap is to be phased by the originality; just straight musical skill unveils the meaning, both absolute and programmatic. Kuchar’s fine performance adds weight to the argument that it is Nielsen’s greatest symphonic statement but also distinguishes his own approach to the entire cycle. The dilemma of the controversial second movement: do you portray the intended ugliness by which the composer parodied modernism? Or, like Ormandy’s trail-blazing performance, do you express the refinement of the fabulous Philadelphians? Kuchar is squarely in the camp of the latter exquisite beauty and has me revert to Bostock’s rude, earthy, and biographical Nielsen.

I don’t believe the Czechs have fallen at the last hurdle. There is no single perspective on a complex symphony but I will risk reputation, friendships and credibility to state that Brilliant has the ultimate cycle by a convincing margin. All six works at the level of any rival performance and the Second in a new orbit. Engineering to match. It isn’t just the ideal set for beginners, it proves that we are all beginners. If this Brilliant set was marketed as a Limited Edition with wooden crate and gold-plated audiophile CDs at £110, I would advise everyone to buy or live in darkness. At £11 - at full UK price for all three discs - I hope you will not hesitate.

I am joyful at the discovery of this set, apologetic for overlooking it, curious for more information, and looking forward to extended listening. These discs are nothing less than a paradigm shift.

  Jack Lawson


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