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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
The Symphonies – vol. 1
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7, FS 16 (1889-94) [33:03]
Symphony No. 6, FS 116, ‘Sinfonia semplice’ (1924-25) [34:43]
Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
rec. 27-28 March 2000 (Symphony No. 1), 29 March, 10 April, 20 June and 31 July 2000 (Symphony No. 6), Danish Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark               
NAXOS 8.570737 [67:47]


Experience Classicsonline

These performances were first released singly on Dacapo 8.224169 and then as part of a complete set, the latter much praised by Rob Barnett. For comparison I hauled out Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s Finnish Radio recordings; Nos. 1 and 2 on Warner Elatus 2564 60431 2, Nos. 5 and 6 on 0927 49424 2.

In his 2002 review Rob remarked that Michael Schønwandt is little known outside Denmark; indeed I could only recall his Chandos Salome, although I see he has also recorded works by fellow Dane Vagn Holmboe. Quite why these Nielsen symphonies are reappearing on Naxos is not clear but at least there is a price advantage over the original releases. That said, the Saraste discs are still pretty competitive at mid-price, as are Blomstedt’s two Double Decca sets, so Naxos don’t have the field all to themselves.

Nielsen’s First begins and ends with a juxtaposition of C major and G minor, creating a tension that pervades the entire symphony. In the opening Allegro orgoglioso the Naxos recording may be more diffuse but in mitigation the Danes sound much more refined. There is an air of patience and restraint to Schønwandt’s reading that may not appeal to everyone but it certainly grew on me.

The lyrical G major Andante has some lovely phrasing and plenty of inner detail. Schønwandt pitches the gentler music against the darker interludes with great care, creating a genuine sense of symphonic development. Saraste’s recording is more transparent, the rocking theme on the lower strings marginally less telling than for Schønwandt. Still, Saraste achieves a certain cragginess in the climaxes and there is a wonderful sense of repose at the end; Schønwandt is generally more implacable and, in the final bars, more stoical.

The perky little tune that opens the Allegro comodo – in E major – is winningly phrased on both recordings, though Saraste emphasises the music’s more daring sonorities. Schønwandt’s style is altogether plainer but not to the detriment of detail and contrast. He is certainly less excitable than Saraste, a quality I appreciated more on repeated hearing.

In the fiery Finale – C major and G minor again – Schønwandt’s emphatic style seems more appropriate than ever. At this point I felt Saraste’s reading was beginning to lose some of its appeal. Make no mistake the Finns are more than capable of raw excitement, especially in the tuttis, but Schønwandt has a much surer grasp of the larger symphonic structure. The Danish brass are thrilling, the timp-led crescendos superbly judged. As always Schønwandt is unflappable, and that creates a musical tension all of its own.

I set out thinking that Saraste was unassailable in this symphony but I have to admit Schønwandt’s reading is very impressive indeed. Perhaps it’s a loftier, far-sighted reading, whereas Saraste’s is more immediate and impulsive. Both are compelling and I’d not want to be without either.

Nielsen’s last symphony, No. 6, is not as simple as its subtitle might suggest. Yes, there is a sunny, idyllic mood in the Tempo giusto but there are storm clouds too. Once again there is that tonal ambiguity, this time G major and B flat, and the movement ends enigmatically, without any sense of resolution.

Saraste is somewhat faster in this movement – 12:32 as opposed to 14:24 – yet he never misses the subtleties of Nielsen’s chamber-like scoring. His recording is more transparent and this time he has the surer grasp of musical structure. Saraste also points up the mix of Mahlerian innocence and Sibelian grandeur, bringing greater poignancy to the movement’s melancholic close.

One thing that did puzzle me about Schønwandt’s Sixth is that it was recorded over months rather than days. That isn’t ideal and perhaps explains why Schønwandt’s reading lacks the sheer concentration and focus of the First. Certainly Saraste has the better, more revealing acoustic and that’s a real plus in Nielsen’s delicate scoring.

The Humoresque recalls Shostakovich at his most sardonic, with martial side drums and grotesque instrumental touches. Musically Schønwandt’s steady approach works surprisingly well here, although sonically Saraste has the benefit of a broader, more detailed soundstage. Whatever their minor differences both conductors are alive to the movement’s strange, spectral mood.

The outwardly passionate string theme that opens the Proposta seria – Adagio is as uncertain as anything in this symphony. Again there are echoes of Shostakovich; is it the hollowness of these tunes that brings the latter to mind? Any sense of tranquillity is short-lived, and while the Finns play with commendable eloquence it’s the Danes who shine a light into the music’s dark corners.

The solo bassoon ushers in the final Theme and variations, Saraste deft in the ensuing waltz and bass drum intrusions. This time it’s the Finnish brass and agitated strings that make the most impact, the roar of percussion much enhanced by the wide-ranging recording. That said the Naxos disc is weighty but unspectacular, an apt description of Schønwandt’s approach to the score as a whole.

Despite my initial reservations about the recording of Schønwandt’s Sixth it remains a powerful performance. And while there are moments where I night prefer Saraste’s reading Schønwandt brings an air of authority to this music that’s impossible to ignore. Of course there are other recordings to consider – notably the Blomstedt sets – but in their different ways Saraste and Schønwandt are both deeply satisfying.

Dan Morgan





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