> Carl Nielsen - The Six Symphonies [TB]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
The Six Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 (1889-1894) FS16 [34.00]
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1901-1902) FS29 [33.44]
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Espansiva (1910-1911) FS60 [37.11]
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable (1914-1916) FS76 [36.28]
Symphony No. 5 (1920-1922) FS97 [38.21]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Semplice (1924-1925) FS116 [34.34]
Inger Dam-Jensen (sop); Poul Elming (ten)
René Mathiesen (timpani 1); Christian Utke Schiøler (timpani 2);
Niels Thomsen (clarinet); Tom Nybye (snare drum)
Danish National Radio SO/Michael Schønwandt
rec. Danish Radio Concert Hall, 25-28 May, June 14 1999 (2 and 3): 27-28 Mar 2000, 29 Mar, 10 Apr, 20 June, 31 July 2000 (1 and 6); 21-22 Oct 1999, 26-27 Oct 1999 (4 and 5) stereo DDD
recorded in cooperation with Danmarks Radio
DACAPO 8.203130 [3CDs: 71.05+75.56+67.42]


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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.

Terry Barfoot

Also see Review by Rob Barnett

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