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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
The Collector’s Edition: Symphonies, Concertos, Overtures, Choral works and piano solos
see end of review for details
Experience Classicsonline

The last decade has seen good times for enthusiasts of classical music on disc. That’s especially true for those who are better than curious about a particular composer and are prepared to venture the cost of a couple of premium price CDs to buy a box such as this. In the EMI stable this set is not an isolated example. In their Collector’s Edition line we have already had the massive Elgar box and just around the corner is the 30 CD Vaughan Williams collection. All this was virtually unimaginable in the early days of the CD; never mind the LP era.
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 sessions were taken on by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the young Herbert Blomstedt. Not only did they record the six symphonies but they added the three concertos and many of the overtures and other orchestral pieces. Even so, did EMI expect that in years to come those recordings could be packed and repacked in so many permutations to produce a continuing income stream? During the LP era the Nielsen/Blomstedt set debuted as a weighty eight-LP set. After that individual LPs from the set appeared on EMI Greensleeves mid-price vinyls. I am not sure whether any were issued on those early CDC full price discs during the 1980s when all the companies were reissuing old recordings at full price. However the symphonies and the concertos were issued on single CDs on EMI Matrix. Then in the 1990s the Symphony recordings plus the two choral works emerged on two Double Ffortes 5741882 and 5742992. Then last year (2007) the Symphonies reappeared on an EMI Triple 5008292. Blomstedt is the only conductor to return to the six symphonies on disc; witness his well regarded Decca cycle with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Blomstedt embraces the rambunctious elements in the first two symphonies yet he also can emote in the calming Dvořákian brooks of the andante of the First. This was a mood to which he was to return in the second movement of the Fourth. There is plenty of excitement and visceral excitement in the allegro orgoglioso of the First Symphony and the outward flankers of the Second Symphony. The first disc ends with the Beecham-lollipop soothing of the Bohemian-Danish Folk Tune. No sign as yet of anything too demanding - no sign of Pan and Syrinx or Saga-Drøm; still less of the Sixth Symphony.
The second CD erupts with the thudding clunking-fist 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, skirl and blare at the start of the third movement of Espansiva. The finale, like the first movement, has a bracingly confident and swinging stride. All is well in the thunderously affirmative finale. This is a fine performance although not as vehement or headstrong as Bernstein’s classic 1960s recording for CBS.
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 that it might easily be by 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 Webernian spareness and pawky enigmatic 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 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.
The fourth and fifth discs are the equivalent of the EMI Classics twofer 3 81503 2 which was reviewed here by Dominy Clements. I say equivalent; in fact both discs are here topped up with welcome ‘interlopers’.  The first includes the Little Suite as recorded in 1995 under the late Iona Brown. They give a wonderfully ripe yet tender performance, gowingly recorded. The second adds the very short opera prelude to Maskarade where the BBCSO is conducted by Andrew Davis. All credit to EMI for trawling to give us more of Nielsen’s music.
The soloist in the Violin Concerto is Arve Tellefsen, the doyen of Norwegian violinists. He gives a performance that brings out the Beethovenian and Brahmsian aspects of this fusion of the classical and rustic. This is not a dramatic-heroic work but concentrates on a range between folksy-pastoral, country chivalry and Elysian meditation: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto meets Beethoven’s Pastoral meets Arcadian meadows. Tellefsen’s and Blomstedt’s approach differs from that of Saeko Matsuyama (Regis and Bridge) who emphasises the extremes of uproar and dreaminess. He is closer to Kim Sjogren in the treasurable classic coupling of the three concertos on Chandos (CHAN8894): Danish Radio again but this time with doughty Nielsen expert Michael Schønwandt. The other two concertos flanked by shorter works are well recorded and performed with lashings of character. Lemmser is not as feral and impudent as Julius Baker (Sony) but he catches the Nielsen accent excellently. The same goes for Stevenson in the snarl, cold and desolation of the Clarinet Concerto.
The sixth disc could easily and neatly have accommodated all three Nielsen concertos from the original box. It’s a logical coupling and has been the pattern at first for Chandos (Schønwandt) and then for Naxos and Regis. EMI dart off in another direction. We leave Blomstedt behind and go for two major choral/orchestral works conducted by Mogens Wöldike. Hymnus Amoris was prompted by memories of his honeymoon in Italy with Anne Marie Brodersen, his sculptress wife. This is a rounded and warmly songful work with more than a trace of the Brahmsian legacy but mixed with the first intimations of Nielsen's distinctive pastoral voice. The piece ends in a carillon of jubilation. The four separately banded movements speak through the Latin poetry of Johan Ludvig Heiberg. Four years later, during the early 1900s, he wrote Søvnen (Sleep). This work is in three movements and is for chorus setting poems by Johannes Jørgensen. Nielsen conducted the premiere in 1905. An eldritch cabalistic rite (En kval - en Tynge ... Ve mig - er jeg vaagen) painted in sinister sounds separates two peaceful episodes in which Nielsen's elysian Brahmsian choral style is dominant. All ends in a murmurous glow. Such a pity that EMI could not come up with a recording of the joyous choral-orchestral Springtime on Funen to include in the set. Then comes the oldest recording here: the Melos Ensemble in their late 1960s session tapes of the Wind Quintet. This work is from Nielsen's high maturity and bursts with character. It was written for the five musicians of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet: Sven Christian Felumb (oboe), who later conducted extracts from Nielsen's Aladdin music, Paul Hagemann (flute), Knud Lassen (bassoon), Aage Oxenvad (clarinet) and Hans Sørensen (horn). They gave the first public performance on 9 October 1922. The Quintet is in three movements: pensive and effervescently active yet in a restful glowing way. The Melos are well under the skin of this music and village band wheeziness seems to come easily to them as required in the middle movement. Strange bleak and lonely moods are also fluently put across as in the creaking bleakness of Praeludium leading to the pastoral roundels, country church harmonies and quirky defiance of the Tema con variazioni.
The final disc is also the shortest. It is an exact replica of Virgin Classics 5620402 which I reviewed here five years ago. Mina Miller's recording of the complete Nielsen piano music used to be a mainstay of the Hyperion LP catalogue. It never made it onto CD ... at least not for Hyperion. It was licensed to Jesper Bühl's Danacord label who steadfastly keep the set in currency. Miller was, I seem to recall, rather good in her Nielsen but Andsnes strikes me as outstanding. Nielsen's piano music is still fairly obscure so having his strongest pieces in such visionary performances from Andsnes makes for potent advocacy. The Chaconne is elegant and touched with the enchantment of a Chopin mazurka. We get a terse and bullish Den Luciferiske suite Op. 45. Here Nielsen wrote one of his most revolutionary works; rather like Cowell with a dash of starry skies. The composer's heritage from Bach and Grieg is also discernible. The final piece in the group is alive with sturdy fantasy. After this twenty minute suite comes the Op. 50 triptych. These pieces speak of dislocated universes and feature a strong rhythmic tread - a Bartókian 'footprint'. They often express themselves through a determined gawkiness and rustic ecclesiatical serenity. I thought of Conlon Nancarrow when hearing the rapid-running rivulets and dissonance in this sequence. From very early on come the Five Pieces. Grieg and Bach are once again the exemplars. Also of early vintage is the Op. 11 Humoresk sequence with its collision between Handelian quietude, Chopin waltzes, elegance (in Sprællemanden, tr. 19) and toy-box Mozartian carillons (Spilleværket, tr. 21)
At this mid-price/bargain end of the catalogue there is competition although not like-for-like (this release really fits into the superbudget range at less than £20 - Ed.). For years the Ole Schmidt/LSO Unicorn series vied head to head with the Blomstedt EMI. So it continues now. Regis have packed the three Unicorn CDs containing only the six symphonies and rolled this out at bargain price. Schmidt's cycle may have had its orchestral imprecisions but it is superbly recorded (Bob Auger) and still rates top recommendation at bargain and midfield levels. Regis have also used the three Schmidt CDs as the core of a 6 CD all-Nielsen set (RRC6002) which also includes the three concertos (one licensed from Bridge), many of the orchestral tone poems and preludes, the Aladdin suite, the Three Motets and the major omission from this set, the folksy artful-artless cantata Springtime in Funen.
If however you like the spread and reach of the present EMI set then go for it - you will be tapping into some excellent Nielsen readings and the coverage of music is very wide and will reward adventurous listening. If you want just the symphonies at bargain price then go for the Regis - it’s a stunning bargain and should be snapped up. 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. Also of real vibrant character and in heroically exultant sound are the recordings of the concertos and four of the six symphonies on BIS by Myung-Whun Chung. The Blomstedt readings are splendid and radiate a lively imagination, attention to mood and instrumental detail. On top of this they sound better than they ever did on LP - I still have that massive breeze block of a boxed set upstairs: why? The work of David Mottley, Evald Rasmussen and Neville Boyling can be appreciated to best advantage.
Dan Fog and Torben Schousboe have systematically catalogued Nielsen’s production and this set includes their FS numbering as the prime identification.
A new and very readable programme note has been commissioned from David Fanning  but sadly no texts are provided.
Rob Barnett

CD and recording details
CD 1 [77.24]
Symphony No. 1 (1889-1894) FS16 (Op.7) [35.53]
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments FS29 (Op.16) (1901-1902) [33.48]
Bøhmisk-dansk folketone (Bohemian-Danish Folk Tune) FS130 [7:29]
CD 2 [75.12]
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Espansiva (1910-1911) FS60 ‡ (Op.27) [35.57]
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable (1914-1916) FS76 (Op.29) [34.08]
Andante Lamentoso - At the bier of a young artist (Ved en ung Kunstners Baare) FS58 [4:49]
CD 3 [71.18]
Symphony No. 5 FS97 (Op.50) (1920-1922) [35.35]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Semplice (1924-1925) FS116 [35.12]
CD 4 [73.50]
Little Suite for String Orchestra, FS6 (Op.1) [15:37]
Symphony Rhapsody, FS7 [8:27]
Helios Overture, FS32 (Op.17) [12:01]
Violin Concerto, FS61 (Op.33) [37:20]
CD 5 [73.50]
Overture Maskarade, FS39 [4:38]
Saga-drøm, FS46 (Op.39) [8:01]
Pan og Syrinx, FS87 (Op.49) [8:36]
Flute Concerto, FS119 [19:05]
Rhapsodic Overture: An Imaginary Journey to the Færoe Islands, FS123 [9:56]
Clarinet Concerto, FS129 (Op.57) [25:36]
CD 6 [65.13]
Hymnus Amoris, FS21 (Op.12) (I. Childhood; II. Youth; III: Manhood; IV. Old Age) () [22:51]
Søvnen (Sleep), FS33 (Op.18) (I. Milde søvnen, du store Moder; II. En Kval – en Tunge…Ve mif – er jeg vaagen?; III. Drømme svinder, Syner falme) [18:07]
Wind Quintet, FS100 (Op.43) [23:58]
CD 7 [54.20]
Chaconne, FS79 (Op.32) [9:23]
Suite ‘Den Luciferiske’, FS91 (Op.45) [21:04]
Tre Klaverstykker (Three Piano Pieces), FS131 (Op.59) [10:19]
Fem Klaverstykker (Five Piano Pieces), FS10 (Op.3) (Folketone (Folk Melody); Humoreske; Arabeske; Mignon; Alfedans (Elf Dance)) [7:23]
Humoreske-bagateller, FS22 (Op. 11) (I. Goddag! Goddag! (Good Morning! Good Morning!); II. Snurretoppen (Spinning Top); III. En lille langsom vals (A Little Slow Waltz); IV. Sprællemanden (Jumping Jack); V. Dukkemarch (Doll’s March); VI. Spilleværket (Musical Clock)) [5:57]
Arve Tellefsen (violin)
Frantz Lemmser (flute)
Kjell-Inge Stevensson (clarinet)
Ib Jarlkov (side drum)
‡ Kirsten Schultz (soprano), Peter Rasmussen (baritone)
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra/Iona Brown (Little Suite); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (Maskarade); Kirsten Schultz; Bodil Gøbil (soprano); Tonny Landy (tenor); Bent Norup (bass baritone); Mogens Schmidt Johansen; Hans Christian Andersen (bass); Copenhagen Boys’ Choir; Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mogens Wöldike (Hymnus); Danish Radio Chorus; Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mogens Wöldike (Søvnen); Melos Ensemble (Wind 5tet); Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
rec. Danmarks Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen (recorded in cooperation with Danmarks Radio): No.1: 22-23 August 1974; No.2: 23-25 August 1974; Bøhmisk-dansk folketone: 10-14 February 1975; No.3: 7-10 September 1973; No. 4:: 8-9 March 1974; Bier: 10-14 February 1975; No.5: 3-4 December 1973; No. 6:: 2-5 November 1973; Helios; Rhapsody: 10-14 February 1975; Violin Concerto: 24-26 March 1975; Saga; Pan: 10-14 February 1975; Flute: 14-17 April 1975; Clarinet: 14-17 April 1975; Rhapsodic: 10-14 February 1975; Hymnus; Søvnen: 4, 8 April 1974; Maskarade: February 1990, Studio No. 1 Abbey Road Studios, London; Little Suite: November 1995, Eidsvoll Church, Norway; Wind 5tet: 4-5 December 1967, No. 1 Abbey Road Studios, London; Piano solos: 27-31 March 1995, St. George’s, Brandon Hill - some parts taken from concert performance at St. George’s, Brandon Hill, 31 March 1996. Digital remastering: CD1 (1994); CD2 (1995);  CD3 (2001); CD4 (DRSO) (1997); CD5-6 (DRSO) (2001). ADD/DDD


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