The six symphonies of Carl Nielsen rank among the greatest
orchestral music to have been written during the 20th century. They
form a unified body of work by a composer with a magnificent orchestral
and intellectual command, while each symphony exudes its own individual
strong personality. As with all great music, these symphonies are greater
than any one interpretation of them. At the same time, each convinces
the listener, in performance, that it is 'the greatest', a telling definition
of great music as coined by a great critic, the late Hans Keller.
These recordings by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra
and Michael Schønwandt are eminently satisfying performances,
supported by truthful, clear and atmospheric recorded sound. As such
they are well worth investigating, even if there are more exciting alternatives
to be found.
The First Symphony is a wonderfully invigorating piece,
tightly constructed with a compelling sweep of symphonic momentum, and
Schønwandt has its measure. The fluency of the music communicates
in every bar, and while the violin tone is not always as full as it
might be (the orchestra or the recording?), there is some excellent
playing, including distinguished wind solos.
The outer movements are taken with sane tempi that
allow the phrasing to breathe; a headlong rush in this music loses more
than it gains. Perhaps the nobility of the climactic passages in the
slow movement is more nobly conceived in Herbert Blomstedt's San Francisco
performance (Decca), but it would be unfair to say that Schønwandt
fails here, he is simply less intense.
The Symphony No. 2 has the title 'The Four Temperaments',
each of its movement characterising a different human type. This is
a logical and eminently symphonic conception, in the sense that it provides
four approaches which are contrasted in a manner not unlike that of
the classical symphonic tradition. Schønwandt secures some excellent
playing from his Danish musicians in this marvellous but under-performed
work. As ever he takes a more relaxed view of the music than Blomstedt,
his main rival, and it is no surprise that the second movement Allegro
commodo e flemmatico, is particularly pleasing. The 'sanguine' finale
is nicely characterised, too, and as a whole the performance gives much
pleasure, though sometimes greater intensity might have been generated.
The Third Symphony, Espansiva, is finer still, and
the title may well have been chosen as a statement about the composer's
own outlook and achievement. Tempi are well chosen and the drama is
brilliantly captured by Schønwandt. If there is a criticism to
be made of the first movement, it is that the balancing of the orchestra
does not always allow the full glories of the horn parts to make their
mark, though they are far from reticent.
The inner movements are particularly well done, and
the two solo voices Nielsen employs towards the end of the slow movement
are beautifully balanced and not unduly prominent. For these are 'orchestral'
and not 'concertante' parts, a point too often missed, singers being
what they are. The finale is taken at the slower end of Allegro, as
was the case in Leonard Bernstein's famous recording (Sony Classical).
The richness and warmth of the orchestral textures, and of the melodic
material, suit this approach very well indeed, and the results are highly
successful and satisfying. This is as fine a Nielsen performance as
Schønwandt has given, a splendid achievement.
The Fourth and Fifth symphonies are arguably Nielsen's
finest. And they are well played by this top class orchestra, the ensemble
that has probably performed the music more often than any other. So
far so good, then. And it is true that there are commendable aspects
to these two performances. The recordings are nicely balanced in a clear
and ambient acoustic, while the performances are nicely balanced too.
However, these undoubted attributes are not necessarily the whole story
as far as these searing masterpieces are concerned.
Both these works can fairly be described as 'conflict
symphonies', in which elemental forces and ideas do battle, as graphically
represented by the pair of timpani in the finale of the Fourth and the
side-drum solo in the first movement of the Fifth. Therefore the opportunity
for real symphonic drama is strongly present. Schønwandt tends
to miss it. His performances are sensitive as to phrasing and line,
certainly, but they do not have the cutting edge that others have found,
most notably Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
In this performance the first movement of the Inextinguishable
(No. 4) is suitably vital, but as the music proceeds, the strings sound
somewhat undernourished and the music loses power as a result. The second
movement is particularly lightweight (a valid interpretation), though
the great finale, with its warring pair of timpani most effectively
captured in the recorded perspective, is extremely effective.
In the Fifth the role of the percussion is crucial
in the first movement. Although the performance is well paced and there
are some memorable solos from the clarinet, overall the balance is too
polite, with the drama lacking focus. The great side drum attack, when
the player is instructed to 'improvise, as if at all costs to prevent
the progress of the remainder of the orchestra', is under-characterised,
both in its symphonic context and its sonic effect. The second movement
(there are two large movements) is notable for its strength and the
bounding energy generated by the powerful sweep of the opening theme.
Schønwandt's tempo is rather dogged here, not necessarily a bad
thing on itself, but it does pose problems of momentum as the music
develops. In particular the sweep of compelling elemental energy isn't
quite as compelling as it might be, especially when the symphony reaches
its blazing final phase.
The Sixth Symphony receives a performance that is most
convincing, forming a highlight of the set. This problematic piece needs
to be carefully rehearsed, and full marks to the artists whose preparation
was clearly impeccable. In the third movement _ 'Proposta Seria', Schønwandt
generates a magnificent intensity, and the other movements too achieve
a rare balance of relative tempi, unifying the whole. The recorded sound
plays its part too, in making the performance of this extraordinary
symphony so compelling. This is some of Nielsen's strangest and most
compelling music, and the relatively relaxed tempi allow for plenty
of detail to be heard.
This is an interesting and well presented set of the
Nielsen symphonies. Although not all the performances rank as first
choices among the available recordings, each of the interpretations
has interesting things to say about the music, and the playing of the
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra is everything one would expect of a
major international ensemble.
Also see Review
by Rob Barnett