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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 1 (1889-1894) FS16 [35.53]
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1901-1902) FS29 [33.48]
B°hmisk-dansk folketone FS130 [7:29]
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Espansiva (1910-1911) FS60 ‡ [35.57]
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable (1914-1916) FS76 [34.08]
Andante Lamentoso - At the bier of a young artist [4:49]
Symphony No. 5 (1920-1922) FS97 [35.49]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Semplice (1924-1925) FS116 [35.31]
Kirsten Schulz (sop); Peter Rasmussen (ten) ‡
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Sept 1973 – Oct 1976. stereo. ADD
recorded in cooperation with Danmarks Radio
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 50999 5 00829 2 6 [3 CDs: 77.10 + 74.54 + 71.20]


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 sets. 

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 are prominent. 

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 finale. 

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. 

Rob Barnett



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