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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, FS 60, ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ (1910-11)* [37:16]
Symphony No. 2, Op. 16, FS 29, ‘The Four Temperaments’ (1901-02) [33:55]
Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano); Poul Elming (tenor)*
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
rec. 25-28 May, 14 June 1999, Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark
NAXOS 8.570738 [71:11]
Experience Classicsonline

Michael Schønwandt’s reissued recording of Nielsen’s First and Sixth symphonies (see review) impressed me so much I was eager to hear his versions of the Second and Third. This cycle is not new – it appeared on Dacapo some years ago and was well reviewed here on MusicWeb at the time (see review). Certainly Naxos have made a very good job of the transfers and at super budget prices these discs are very competitive indeed.
 
In my earlier review I compared Schønwandt with Jukka-Pekka Saraste and his Finnish Radio orchestra, referring to Herbert Blomstedt’s two Nielsen sets in passing. At the time I had not heard Ole Schmidt’s cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra, now available on Regis RRC 3002. The latter, a three-disc set retailing for around £14, works out at roughly £4.50 per disc, so Naxos aren’t without rivals at this price point.. As for Schmidt’s performances, I’ll touch on those later.
 
Curiously Naxos have reversed the order of the symphonies on this disc – they did the same with a recent Taneyev release. Since I can’t think of a good reason for this I’ll start with the earlier work. Ostensibly based on a painting in a village pub, ‘The Four Temperaments’ deals with the four bodily humours and their distinctive traits: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. There are also key relationships at work in these movements but really the symphony is a series of character sketches.
 
The first movement (Allegro collerico) finds Schønwandt in ebullient mood, with some crisp playing from the Danish brass. There is plenty of thrust here, not to mention moments of towering grandeur. The recording is spacious and warm, the timps especially well caught. Instinctively, or so it seems, Schønwandt finds the tempo giusto, bringing tremendous urge and a marvellous sense of scale to this craggy symphony. In the last stretch the lewd brass sound splendid, the orchestra forging ahead with precision and weight.
 
The phlegmatic second movement has a gentle bucolic charm that is hard to resist, Schønwandt pointing up all Nielsen’s instrumental strands and colours along the way. The mournful but lyrical Andante malincolico has some lovely string playing and as always Schønwandt shapes and builds the Brucknerian climaxes very naturally indeed.
 
There is a real sense that conductor and players know this music well and are alive to its shifting moods. The jaunty, sanguine finale is no exception, pizzicato strings as nimble as can be, the dance-like rhythms both buoyant and propulsive. Again there is some fine string playing, hushed this time, before the music swaggers to a rousing conclusion. In music that can so easily seem rhetorical it’s good to hear a performance with such a strong, purposeful stride.
 
Schønwandt’s reading of the Second is much more bracing than Saraste’s and the Danish orchestra is generally more responsive and characterful. The same applies to the Third, which Schønwandt gets off to a thrilling start. Saraste sounds a tad underpowered here, those strange whooping figures less captivating than they are for Schønwandt. The recorded sound strikes a good balance between warmth and clarity, with no sign of congestion or glare.
 
The title ‘Espansiva’, added as an afterthought, suggests some kind of intellectual quest, the rarefied air of the Andante pastorale superbly evoked by the wordless singing of the two soloists. Inger Dam-Jensen is particularly ethereal here. The highly animated Allegretto is reminiscent of the hero’s battle with his critics in Ein Heldenleben, albeit without the oversized ego. It is a far cry from the noble and ennobling music of the previous movement and is again essayed with great polish and refinement.
 
The Finale: Allegro moves into a jubilant phase, complete with a series of blazing perorations. There is a palpable sense of attainment here, the sustained but reassuring passage that begins at 5:24 nicely articulated. And while triumph is in the air here it is quite without vanity; indeed, despite Nielsen’s subtext the great climax at the end of this symphony has a human dimension rather than a lofty philosophical one. The Danes bring it off superbly, making this one of the most thrilling Nielsen Thirds around.
 
Schønwandt’s Nielsen has an authority. a sure sense of structure and direction, that I’ve come to admire very much indeed. I wouldn’t want to be without Saraste’s vital readings, even though Schønwandt outpoints him in many respects. And one can’t ignore Ole Schmidt, whose towering performance of the Third is essential listening. A pre-digital recording from the 1970s the latter has astonishing range and power. More than that Schmidt brings out all the subsidiary strands in this music, the LSO – at their peak and playing with rare intensity. Schmidt’s Second is no less compelling, but compared with Schønwandt the honours are more evenly divided here.
 
With just the Fourth and Fifth to come these performances could well attain classic status. Certainly Schønwandt’s readings rival Schmidt’s, even if they don’t surpass them. Frankly I wouldn’t want to be without either.
 
Dan Morgan

see also review by Leslie Wright
(July 2008 Bargain of the Month)
 

 


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