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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 1, FS 16, Op 7
Symphony No. 6, "Sinfonia Semplice", FS 116.

Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Michael Schønwandt
Dacapo 8.224169 [DDD 67:42]
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This is the last instalment of Dacapo's complete Nielsen Symphonies, the first two discs having been well received. I am pleased to say that this disc has exceeded my own expectations to the point where it has hardly been out of my machine for the last two weeks.

Michael Schønwandt draws magnificent playing from the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra in performances which are clean, vivid, highly characteristic and remarkably confident. Both orchestra and conductor demonstrate an understanding and ease with the music which I have rarely heard in performances of Nielsen's music. How appropriate that it should come from a Danish orchestra and conductor who clearly demonstrate the passion they feel for the music of their fellow countryman!

It is fascinating to listen to these side by side: Nielsen's first and last essays in symphonic form. Working through a period of musical revolution it is clear that the developments of the time were not lost on Nielsen. He was able to absorb and yet distill these influences into his own highly personal language, a language which branded him as one of the great individualists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Symphony No. 1 was probably begun around 1899 and received its first performance in Copenhagen in 1894. Although not all reviews were complimentary it is easy to see why the work was subsequently performed frequently, not only in Denmark, but notably in Germany. It is perhaps closest to Brahms in both spirit and form and demonstrates an impressive clarity of structure and symphonic thought for an early opus. Schønwandt gives a reading of wonderful contrast, bringing out all of Nielsen's subtle mood changes in a performance that never loses its sense of momentum and yet retains a feeling of airiness that is so vital to the music. The andante second movement leaves a particularly haunting impression, played with a warmth and depth devoid of any over sentimentality, which I found highly moving.

The Symphony No. 6 is an astonishing work which is not easy to pull off convincingly. Once again both conductor and orchestra have the measure of it. The second movement Humoresque is wonderfully played with the orchestra revelling in Nielsen's extrovert orchestration. The influence of Stravinsky is clear here (particularly Petrouchka) but the language is still highly personal. There are even passages in the final movement which bear a resemblance to Charles Ives in their use of rhythmic multi-layering, although I doubt if Nielsen ever heard an Ives symphony! The complete performance is an exhilarating experience both in terms of the playing and the sound, which is exceptionally clear and realistic.

This all-Danish disc is a first class release which any Nielsen fan should not be without. Both the playing and the recording are of a high standard and to cap the package off there are excellent booklet notes with useful essays on both works. Well done to all concerned!

Christopher Thomas.

Performance and sound

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