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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No.3 FS 60 (Op.27) “Sinfonia Espansiva”(1910-11) [37:57]
Symphony No.6 FS 116 “Sinfonia Semplice” (1924-25) [32:17]
Pia-Maria Nilsson (soprano)*, Olle Persson (baritone)*,
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen.
rec. Berwald Hall, Stockholm, 5-6 June 1989* and 20-21 September 1990. DDD
SONY CLASSICAL SK46500 [70:48] 


Although recordings of Nielsen's symphonies – other than the fourth – were once a rarity, the catalogue is now full of Nielsen cycles, many of them very good.  This is good news all round, because these symphonies are some of the finest written by any composer in the early 20th century.  They hold their own against all comers, even those written by the likes of Elgar, Sibelius or Mahler.  The inevitable result of this sudden surfeit of excellent recordings, though, is that some of the older ones tend to disappear.  So it has been with Salonen's Nielsen cycle.  These two performances, together with his recording of the second symphony, are probably the pick of the bunch.  Collectors will be glad to have a chance to acquire them again on demand from Arkiv.

The first movement of the Espansiva is strongly characterised here and bristles with energy.  Herbert Blomstedt (in his second performance with the San Francisco Symphony on Decca, rather than his earlier reading on EMI) and Myung-Whun Chung on BIS may project the opening chords with greater urgency and confidence, but Salonen finds an icy lyricism in the surging chromaticism that follows.  He does indulge in expressive rubato at the transitions – listen to the way he slows all action at about 1:50 in, for example – but this tendency is not overly distracting.  He moves the action along with sympathy, and if the hurdy-gurdy waltz towards the end of the movement is robustly lyrical, rather than explosive as it is with  Järvi and Chung, this is a point of difference rather than a fault. 

The second movement has a lovely Brahmsian glow to begin with, morphing into a Sibelian shimmer, as the thematic material is passed upwards through the strings.  There is some lovely woodwind playing here too.  Both vocalists are fresh and lovely, and blend beautifully. 

The third movement is very fine, with Salonen's tempi and dynamic control imparting an edgy otherworldliness to the music.  The finale is grand but austere.  Both movements feel a touch deliberate next to Chung's more fantastical approach and Blomstedt's straightforward brilliance.  Overall, this performance is a very good one, though it does not displace Chung at the top of the heap.  Instead it sits just below Blomstedt and above Järvi as an instructive alternative view of the score. 

The Semplice inhabits a different sound world.  Where the third symphony shows Nielsen coming to the height of his powers and creating music of dramatic force and splendour, the sixth is the music of an older man commenting on his own music and the new contemporary music of the world around him. 

If the third symphony received a good performance from Salonen and co, the sixth fares even better.  From the opening bars, you can sense that Salonen is right inside this music, reveling in its playful, quirky irony.  The first movement has, in his hands, a light off-kilter neo-classical feel.  His touch is lighter than  Järvi's and Blomstedt's and it is this very lightness of touch that makes his performance of the sixth so disarmingly enjoyable. 

The stringless and sparsely scored second movement Humoreske is quickly dispatched.  Salonen's skill as an interpreter of 20th century music stands him in good stead here in Nielsen's parody of modern trends.  The percussion and woodwind interplay that in this movement sounds mildly mad, and the yawning trombones are pert.  The contest between the divided strings in the third movement is stirring, with the antiphonal effects cleanly captured by Sony's engineers.  After ambiguous interplay, Salonen brings the movement to a gentle bucolic close, before the chattering of woodwinds that opens the neo-classical final movement.  As in Nielsen's two previous symphonies, sections of the orchestra play against one another, but with Salonen it is not so much a contest as a case of two musical forces moving onwards, each oblivious to the other's existence.  That is, until the waltz sequence gets moving.  It starts gently enough, but what was light and fluffy gets tougher and refuses to be drowned out.  The final helter-skelter and peasant dance are perfectly judged.  In sum, this is as fine a recording of Nielsen's enigmatic sixth as you are likely to find. 

Salonen's orchestra play this music with feeling and sensitivity.  The Stockholm brass do not exhibit the swaggering confidence of their San Francisco counterparts, and the Göteborgers under both Chung and Neeme Järvi are more energised.  The strings play beautifully, though, and although the Swedish RSO cannot match San Francisco for brilliance or its Swedish neighbour for sheer heft, the balancing and blending of parts is of the highest order. 

The recorded sound is fine and warm, although it feels a little light in the bass.  Decca's sonics for Blomstedt are in a class apart, but Sony's sonics here seem realistic, if less razzle-dazzle. 

If you are coming to Nielsen for the first time, this disc is probably not the place to start, if for no other reason than it comes without liner notes.  There are decent cycles to be had for bargain prices, including Blomstedt's superb Decca cycle, which features consistently excellent, straightforward performances and demonstration class digital recording.  There is no better way for a new initiate to come to Nielsen for my money, though I should note that I have not heard the pioneering Ole Schmidt set, most recently reissued by Regis.  For the extremely budget conscious, the Naxos cycle is not to be sneezed at.  If you want this particular coupling, though, or are keen to hear Salonen's take on Nielsen, look no further.  This disc is worth the outlay. 

Tim Perry 



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