> Nielsen Symphonies Schonwandt [RB]: 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]


Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

The last time I sat down to hear the Nielsen symphonies was for the Sony Essential Classics set where the conductors were Bernstein and Ormandy. Those recordings are now more than thirty years old - going on forty. They still sound well but if you are looking for more modern sound then you need to come forward a decade to the analogue Ole Schmidt set (also at bargain price) on Regis. Repackaged together at attractive price this Dacapo set is very well worth your attention as also is the differently coupled and as yet incomplete cycle from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Boult pupil Douglas Bostock. Nielsen has been very fortunate in his interpreters. I am hard put to think of any really poor interpretations although Francois Huybrechts' Decca Espansiva seemed perfunctory and Karajan's plate steel Inextinguishable left me cold. I am still waiting to hear any of the Berglund Royal Danish Orchestra cycle (BMG), the Bryden Thomson cycle on Chandos, the Naxos discs or most of the San Francisco SO/Blomstedt recordings on Decca. It is well past time that EMI Classics treated Blomstedt's first Nielsen cycle (with all the concertos and the various orchestral oddments) to the same treatment as the Boult RVW symphonies and the Berglund Helsinki PO Sibelius. I still have the unwieldy box of LPs in which the cycle was first issued in 1975. While EMI have issued one double CD box of the first four symphonies and the concertos and orchestral pieces have appeared at odd times on single discs there has been no sign of a complete Edition. Some of those recordings tended to congestion and opacity. It would be good to hear what modern digital remastering could achieve.

Schønwandt has been active in his native Denmark for years but has made little impression beyond; at least if we go by coverage in Gramophone and other internationally circulated publications. This is a pity as he has all the necessary qualities for international attention except perhaps the publicist's appetite for youthful photogenics. His memorably exalted early 1980s radio broadcast of the Louis Glass Symphony No. 5 Sinfonia Svastika remains unmatched and I am permanently grateful to him for that. If only he would record this in the studio with the same fire he caught and transmuted that day.

Those same vigorous and lively qualities endue his Nielsen interpretations with rugged life. Not for one moment would you think that Nielsen's First Symphony was a work of callow youth and yet he was to develop further still. The recording illuminates some querulous and equable woodwind playing as well as densely thunderous climactic passages and diving energy. The strings reach out to the listener in recollection of the yearning massed violin gesture right at the end of Brahms' First Symphony.

The Sixth Symphony shares the same disc as the First. This is Nielsen at the enigmatic end of his journey although there are many suggestions (almost quotes) from his Fourth and Fifth symphonies in the big first movement tempo giusto. The Humoresque second movement is the most 'outlandish' with its Webern-like wisps of music, siren wails à la Varèse and at 2.16 the evocation of a wheezy village band. The finale is not short of humour. Schønwandt lets the character of this piece speak for itself. I still prefer the Ormandy recording but this is very highly recommendable.

The Third Symphony romps, skirls and sings - potently bucolic and Beethovenian in its determination. The recording team have done wonders for the definition of the sound. There are plenty of illustrations of this but I specially noticed the careful capturing of the steadily quietening timpani just after the exciting hammering beats of the opening of the first movement and the resinous cello line at 7.21. The voices in the second movement are placed back in the body of the orchestra, rising and falling as if solo horn and solo clarinet: primus inter pares. The soloists have steady voices, witness the soprano line at 7.57. The anthem finale calls out both confidently nationalistic and following the outline of birdsong. There is contrast along the way, for example the airy suggestion of Sheherazade at 2.19. The brusque power of the Fourth Symphony is foreshadowed in the roughened brass at 3.48.

The Third Symphony was premiered in Copenhagen on 28 February 1912 in the same concert as the Violin Concerto. The vocalising andante was played at Nielsen's funeral on 9 October 1931. The name Espansiva was only attached after the premiere. It refers to the tempo marking of the first movement: Allegro espansivo.

The Schønwandt version of the Second Symphony is given a scorching performance and the first movement is worthy of the flaming anger of its title. The bass heavy attack of the orchestra at 3.19 is notable. I have never heard any better performance of the soft contoured and agreeably boneless allegro commodo e flemmatico. The malincolico is played as if in mourning and while it has the magnitude of a state occasion and the anger of eternity it also manages to be intimate. It would be interesting to know whether this movement reflected any loss in Nielsen's life around the turn of the century. After anger, the phlegmatic and the sorrowing comes optimism.

The sequence in which works are heard can bring out qualities which may have been obvious to some but were not so to the listener. The pounding allegro of the Fourth Symphony, The Inextinguishable bridges across to the collerico movement of the Four Temperaments rather than the sanguineo. This is mixed with the anthem character of the Espansiva. The village church harmonium is evoked in the Poco allegretto as if in reference to the Serenata in Vano, parts of the Wind Quintet and childhood on the island of Fyn. The Poco Adagio might well have helped shape Allan Pettersson's desperate string writing. In the wild-eyed Con-Anima - allegro finale Schønwandt drives hard and the horn choir (such a feature of this symphony and its successor) are encouraged to cry out above the mêlée in the same ecstatic abandon you find in the Helios Overture.

The composer's programme note is quoted in full in the booklet. Nielsen speaks of: "... the struggle, the wrestling, the generation and the wasting away go on today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, and everything returns ... Once more: music is life and like it inextinguishable ... No programme, but a signpost into music's own domain."

The four movements are to be played without pause. The composer conducted the premiere in Copenhagen on 1 February 1916 in the muddy depths of a War that surely marked this work as much as the marital crisis he was experiencing at that time.

At last we come to the peak of the Nielsen symphonic cycle: the Fifth Symphony. Nielsen began work on it in October 1920 then broke off in the Summer of 1921 to write Springtime on Funen. The work was written in Tibberup in a house lent to him by Vera and Carl Johan Michaelsen who were strong supporters of Nielsen and his music. They are the dedicatees of the symphony which is in two movements tracked as follows on this recording: I: 2; II: 4.

The indomitable life-force comes implacably to life in this work and in Schønwandt's hands. This same elemental will to continue and reach out drives the wild gales of the Flute Concerto (when will Sony get round to issuing the Julius Baker CBS recording?), the finale of the Second, the outer movements of the Espansiva and most of the Inextinguishable. This is best experienced in the rude joining of the whirlwind of life flying by in the allegro opening and closing sections of the second movement (tr. 7 and 10). It is as if the listener was walking by as an unknowing workman opened the furnace door. The Presto screams and flails about in Mahlerian fury. The andante poco tranquillo moves us back to the innocent calm expression of the phlegmatic temperament (second movement of the Four Temperaments) though heartbreak trembles on the edge of the strings in a way impossible to Nielsen before the Great War. This is done with concentrated emotion by the Danish orchestra.

The illustrations adorning each of the CDs are paintings or drawings of the composer. There is Suzette Holten's 1899 jugendstil colour profile, Viggo Johansen's 1905 action portrait capturing the young Nielsen conducting and Sigurd Swane's 1931 portrait. All of these are rendered with vivacity.

The notes are well up to Dacapo's exalted standards. The biographical essay is by Niels Bo Foltmann and is standard across all three booklets. Foltmann also does the honours for symphonies 2 and 3. The other authors are: Peter Hauge (1), Claus Røllum-Larsen (4), Michael Fjeldsøe (5) and Thomas Michelsen (6). The texts are also in Danish and German.

So if you are looking for a modern home-grown Nielsen cycle then look no further. I am not a believer that autochthony guarantees authenticity let alone inspiration however these are healthy, touching and exciting performances and could easily stand as your reference copy. They are recorded with gratifying clarity and weight.
Rob Barnett


Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 DACAPO 8.224126 Crotchet
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6 DACAPO 8.224169 Crotchet
Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 DACAPO 8.224156 Crotchet
Danish National RSO/Michael Schønwandt

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