In the early 1970s
Nielsen was a rare visitor to the record catalogue and the six
symphonies were not available as a complete set from one conductor
and one orchestra. 1975 saw all that change. The 110th anniversary
of Nielsen's birth fell in 1975. To mark the event Danish Radio
and EMI Classics launched a complete orchestral cycle.
The related studio broadcasts were taken on by the Danish Radio
Symphony Orchestra and the young Herbert Blomstedt. Not only
did they record the six symphonies but to these were added the
three concertos and a goodly selection of the overtures and
other orchestral oddments.
In 1975 record shops
took delivery of supplies of a a spanking new and breeze-block
large Nielsen box. There were eight LPs and extensive notes.
The cover bore a bas relief medal of Nielsen's head in
profile. The symphonies have appeared before on CD in the much-lamented
Matrix series and also spread across two Double Fforte
Blomstedt does not
shy away from the rambunctious elements in the first two symphonies
yet he also can emote in the calming brooks of the andante
of the First. This mood returns for the second movement of the
Fourth. There is plenty of excitement and visceral excitement
in the allegro orgoglioso of the First and the outer
movements of the Second Symphony.
The first disc ends
with the Beecham-style soothing of the Bohemian-Danish Folk
Tune rather than anything too demanding - no sign of Pan
and Syrinx or Helios. No harm done there as there
are about half a dozen collections at all price levels of short
orchestral works by Nielsen. Among these Naxos, MSR and Regis
The second CD erupts
with the solar plexus punches of the opening of Espansiva.
As with the Fourth Symphony this work, in its moments of placid
chilly stillness (second movement), draws its creative strength
from pastoral images. These are as spiritually provocative as
those that irradiate the Pastoral and Fifth symphonies
of Vaughan Williams. The brass are vividly captured: listen
to their coarse blurt and blare at the start of the third movement
of Espansiva. The finale, like the first movement, has
a bracingly confident and swinging stride. The brass are given
a devastating skirl and all is well in the thunderously affirmative
Blomstedt goads his
Danish Radio players into a pulse-racing start to the Fourth
Symphony. In the space of less than two minutes the strength
of the EMI technical team is evinced in the towering evocative
‘shouts of joy’ as well as in the cello's well-defined solo
voice. The massively poignant fff string assault at the
start of third movement is so strong it might easily be Shostakovich
(symphonies 5, 6, 7). The celebratory brass pull no punches
in the last movement allegro. This erupts like a pyroclastic
flow. Allegro is hardly the word for it. The rolling
tawny horns make a magnificent sound at 2.13 and 2.16.
The andante lamentoso
serves a similar Beecham-valedictory purpose as the Folk
Tune at the end of CD1. Massive string sonority sings out
and embraces the listener.
The last two symphonies
are in stark contrast to each other. The Sixth's almost Webern-like
spareness and pawky humour contrasts with the masterly two movement
Fifth in which the active and the reflective meet. The enigma
of the Sixth meets the heroic-epic Fifth. The effect of the
contrast is comparable with the difference between Sibelius
4 and 5. Blomstedt and the Danish Radio players clearly know
the music like the back of their hands. This allows time and
space for some tense and memorable characterisation. This can
be heard in the Fifth in the dazzle of birdsong at 6.30 in the
first movement. Armies march across the Nielsen landscape captured
in a capacious soundstage that accommodates both massive climaxes
and spot-lit solos - and there are many of these.
There is fierce competition
although not like-for-like. For years the contemporaneous Ole
Schmidt/LSO Unicorn series vied with the Blomstedt. So it continues
now. Regis have packed together the three Unicorn CDs containing
only the six symphonies and rolled this out at bargain price.
Schmidt's cycle may have had its imprecisions but it is superbly
recorded (Bob Auger) and still rates top recommendation at bargain
and midfield levels. However if you like the format, spread
and reach of this set then go for it - you will be tapping into
some excellent Nielsen readings. If you want just the symphonies
at bargain price then go for the Regis - it’s a stunning bargain.
If you want even more character and are prepared to ‘put up’
with ’sixties sound then try the Sony Essential Classics box
with the symphonies variously conducted by Ormandy and Bernstein.
The readings here are
splendid and Blomstedt's lively imagination and attention to
mood and instrumental detail make these recordings endlessly
rewarding. They sound better than ever. The audio-engineering
work of David Mottley, Evald Rasmussen and Neville Boyling can
now be so much better appreciated through this fine set.