Those new to Nielsen will start elsewhere, since this
composerís brilliantly personal and original exploration of the orchestra
demands to be heard in state-of-the-art sound. The first two symphonies
here have a rather dull sound, much as one might have experienced from
a medium-wave radio set at the time, and the Grøndahl 2 has quite
a lot of wow at the beginning. Nos. 3 and 4 are much more brilliant,
if top-heavy; the 1952 4th is often strident, though timpani definition
is remarkable for the date. The Paris 5th is opaque again and, in contrast
to the Danish audiencesí rapt attention, the atmospheric opening is
compromised by a bronchial barrage way beyond the barrier that divides
lack of self-control from sheer bad manners. The studio recording of
no. 6 is clear but shallow. That said, the ear quickly adjusts to some
enthralling music making, so if you have modern recordings and want
to investigate the work of three of Nielsenís finest interpreters, donít
let my comments put you off.
This set usefully supplements the work of Dutton Laboratories,
who have transferred the HMV and Decca studio recordings by the same
conductors. But the great thing about the Danacord set is that in only
one case did the conductor here record the same work commercially.
Like Sibelius, Nielsen conducted no recordings of his
own music, though his daughters always maintained that no subsequent
conductor matched his own performances. Furthermore, while Sibeliusís
symphonies were all on disc by the end of the 1930s, during the lifetime
of the composer, whose reactions to some of the recordings are known,
the first Nielsen symphony to be recorded came in 1933, two years after
his death. This was a live performance of no. 5 under Georg Høeberg,
now available in Vol. 6 of Danacordís "Historical Nielsen"
series. The same volume also contains what should have been the next
Nielsen symphony on record, a test pressing of no. 2 under Jensen, made
in 1944. This remained unissued until the Danacord transfer.
So exploration of one of the major symphonic cycles
of the 20th Century began in earnest after the war, and it is fortunate
that it was entrusted to three Danish conductors who had been closely
associated with the composer. First off the mark was Tuxen, who recorded
no. 3 for Decca in 1946, followed by Jensenís remake of no. 2 for HMV
in 1947. Still on HMV came the 5th from Tuxen in 1950 and Grøndahlís
4th in 1951. Jensen recorded the 1st for Decca in 1951, followed by
a rival 5th in 1954. All these have been reissued by Dutton Laboratories.
In the meantime Jensen had completed the cycle, recording no. 6 for
Tono in 1952. This recording was made available in Great Britain by
World Record Club in 1960 and is contained in the present Danacord set.
By the time of the stereo era Nielsen had been taken up by international
conductors and orchestras; the 1960s saw recordings by Markevitch (4),
Barbirolli (4), Bernstein (3, 5) and Ormandy (6), leading to a positive
explosion of rival cycles in the 1990s.
The oldest of the three Danish conductors was Launy
Grøndahl (1886-1960). He was the permanent conductor of the Danish
Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1926 to 1956; the recording of the 2nd
symphony included here comes from his farewell concert. Alongside Grøndahl
the youngest of the trio, Erik Tuxen (1902-1957), who had began his
career as a jazz band leader, had been conducting the orchestra regularly
since 1936 and had frequently appeared with it on foreign tours (an
earlier edition of this Danacord set included his 1950 performance of
no. 5 from the Edinburgh Festival; this performance marked the start
of Nielsenís appreciation in Great Britain). He was the logical choice
to succeed Grøndahl yet I have been unable to find out if the
appointment had actually been made before his untimely death.
Thomas Jensen (1898-1963) had founded the Aarhus Symphony
Orchestra in 1935 and remained its conductor till 1957 when he took
up the appointment with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. As an orchestral
cellist he had played most of Nielsenís symphonies under the composer
himself and is said to have had a particularly precise memory of his
tempi. The present set includes the only existing tapes of the two symphonies
he did not record commercially, nos. 3 and 4, so the complete cycle
can be heard under his baton.
Looking at the photographs of these conductors (included
in the well-documented booklet) it is interesting to reflect whether
an artistís interpretative stance can be guessed from his physiognomy.
In two cases out of three one would say yes, for Tuxen is lithe and
volatile, living dangerously for the moment. He brings a euphoric surge
to Nielsenís remarkable first symphony, galvanising it into life without
neglecting the more lyrical moments. In the fifth I feel he perhaps
fires all his guns too soon, and thus is unable to cap his earlier climaxes
with the final pages. Itís a fine performance, but perhaps the least
exceptional of the six.
Grøndahlís severe, granitic expression, on the
other hand, matches an interpretative approach which seems to survey
the work from on high, taking in all its grand architectural dimensions.
This does not absolutely preclude either vitality or poetry and this
no. 2 has qualities similar to those of the best Boult/Vaughan Williams
performances of the same period.
Jensenís appearance is much more enigmatic. In fact
he is the conductor of the three who seems to shed his own personality
when on the rostrum. When I hear Jensen conduct Nielsen I seem to hear
the voice of the composer, without the interposition of an interpreter.
He finds a little more breadth in the music and gives fullest expression
to its poetic moments. But he can also be electrifying. The third symphony
surges to an overwhelming conclusion, but even more remarkable is the
1952 fourth. From the start he plunges in without pity for his players
and the finale is simply breathtaking; this must be one of the greatest
performances the work has ever received. What an orchestra this was
in those days! Apart from Grøndahl and Tuxenís work with them,
they had the benefit of a long association with Fritz Busch and Nicolai
Without an audience to stimulate Jensen, tension is
a notch lower in the sixth. It would be an exaggeration to call it studio-bound,
however, for it is still a fine, vital performance, and the work itself
is in any case not so obviously overwhelming as the others.
For those who want to get under the skin of this music
these recordings are a necessary supplement to the modern cycles.