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
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.
THE THREE DACAPO NIELSEN SYMPHONY CDs ARE SOON
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