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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
The Six Symphonies
CD1 421 524-2

Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable (1916) [36.13]
Symphony No. 5 (1922) [35.34]¦
CD2 425 607-2

Symphony No. 1 (1892) [32.57]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Semplice (1925) [33.58]
CD3 430 280-2

Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1902) [32.21]
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Espansiva (1911) [35.26]
San Francisco SO/Herbert Blomstedt
Nancy Wait Kromm (sop); Kevin McMillan (bar) (3)
rec. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco,
Sept 1988 (1); Sept 1989 (2); Dec 1989 (3); Nov 1987 (4); Nov 1987 (5); Sept 1988 (6)
DECCA 443 117-2 [71.47 + 66.55 + 67.47]

In the 1970s there were only two Nielsen symphony cycles. There was the Ole Schmidt from Unicorn (1974, ADD and still a force in the land and to be had from Regis at super-bargain price) and the first Blomstedt cycle from EMI. Blomstedt's Danish set of LPs came in a breeze-block heavy super-box adorned with a bas-relief profile of Nielsen. The recordings were was an ambitious offshoot from Danish Radio's broadcasts. Blomstedt's orchestra was the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Not only were there the six symphonies but also all three concertos and a large number of interludes and overtures, some of them recorded for the first time. That set can now be had across two EMI twofers.

Since those distant days there have been cycles from Schønwandt, Penny, Bernstein (well, part), Bis (part Järvi; part Chung), Rozhdestvensky (Chandos), Thomson, Berglund (RCA) and historical cycles from Dutton and Danacord.

The second Blomstedt visit to the Nielsen symphonies occurred during his stay with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. It has been lauded to the firmament and deserve praise; the strings are silken toned and the playing and recording are generally of the highest standard. However not all is invincibly wonderful. Blomstedt in the First Symphony lacks the plunge and surge of Schmidt and Previn. He is good in the Sixth although not as imaginative and communicative as Ormandy and Schmidt. Once again this is the best sounding of the Nielsen 6s - a pleasure to hear.

The Second has to best Chung on Bis. Blomstedt is a fine conductor and Decca have a top flight recording team for all that I would not prefer this to Chung. It must be said that Chung's Nielsen is in a class of its own - something about all the stars being in the right conjunction. Such a pity that he never completed the cycle and that the Bis Nielsen had to plumped out with less than competitive recordings by Neeme Järvi. Blomstedt blazes with ideas and he has an orchestra second to none but the final spark is only intermittently present. He is in the top quartile of complete boxed sets and many would place this reading as supreme.

The Fourth stands out in this set. It exudes an electric charge and the playing is beyond ardent. The character of the various solos stands out. Nothing is ho-hum anonymous. Pastoral reflective episodes gurgle and smile in the antithesis of chrome-plated playing. The recording quality is complicit with the excellent aesthetic judgements shown throughout. Dashing, almost Vivaldian, violins launch the finale and Blomstedt is in outstandingly joyous form. The drums are caught with Decca's usual flare for impact. The Fifth has similar strengths in one solo after another. Everything is projected within a most realistic soundstage - typical care and flair from Decca. This version yields to Chung on Bis, Bernstein on Sony and Schmidt on Regis.

If you are going for Blomstedt’s San Francisco Nielsen, rather than tracking down the reviewed format (3 CDs in slip case), a better bargain is the two 2CD sets at mid-price: Decca 460985 and 460988. Into the bargain you get the Hymnus Amoris, Little Suite, Maskarade Overture and Aladdin suite.

Don't write off the Regis Schmidt set. It never slips into cruise control and still sounds staggeringly good - a great achievement by the two Bobs - Auger and Simpson.

This is a superior choice among the crowded field of Nielsen symphony contenders: polished playing and plenty of character although the paramount performances are of 4 and 5. Everything is at least good but better performances can be had individually in some cases.

Rob Barnett


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