In response to my review of Bostock’s Nielsen
symphonies and the search for ‘the best recorded cycle’, a MusicWeb
International reader asked why I had not mentioned the one on
Brilliant Classics. I must confess that I had overlooked it
and apparently so did The Gramophone and the Penguin
Guide. Your editor requested this review on his desk by
Monday morning! The task: to audition six major symphonies in
You have heard it said, do not judge a book by
its cover. Well, do not judge a CD by its poor artwork, missing
credits, nor its low price. The notes by David Doughty,
however, are original and illuminating but what about the music?
Can the Czechs cut the mustard? Does Nielsen have to be idiomatic
and if so is it only Danes or Scandinavians who are fully centred?
Perhaps this cycle’s greatest achievement is
to prove once and for all that Nielsen’s works are squarely
in the European symphonic tradition although many of
his songs are Danish. Theodore Kuchar, if I am correct, does
not set out to ‘speak Nordic’. Carl Nielsen travelled extensively
and was well-aware of central European music including the Brahms/Wagner
debate long before he completed his first symphony in 1891.
Arguably, CD heritage proves that Austro-German musicians do
not feel the pulse of Nordic music. Here we have the Bohemians
let loose - so how do the civilised Czechs compare to the earthy
It is a clash of cultures. In my Bostock review
I refrained from comparing his brass to the northern English
band in case it might be construed as derogatory. Not so, yet
the mellow brass of the Czechs makes the point essential. Janáček
- with proper emphasis on the acute á syllable, incidentally
- may well be the composer with closest parallels to the Dane.
His eponymous orchestra is absolutely world-class. The musicians
have beautiful instruments which are played with enthusiasm
and ensemble for Mr Kuchar, a conductor in great demand these
days, and we can hear why.
We can hear it thanks to the conductor’s ear,
a perfect acoustic, and most of all thanks to the balance and
sound engineers. Again and again I caught many fine details
for the first time. Complex passages revealed layers with greater
ease than I have noticed. This adds significantly to the conclusion
that this set is very special.
I plunged into Four and Five —which I opined
that Bostock performed well but did not displace fierce competition.
These monumental symphonies in a good live concert can engulf
the listener. Only rarely on CD a Kubelik or a Kondrashin -
and a Bernstein - pulls it off in the more sterile studio environment.
Without a doubt we now place Kuchar on this pedestal, or rather
podium. It is a combination of his spontaneity and control.
In Four there is always reserve which builds to new peaks, the
energy held back as it were, but power radiates from the precision.
You sense that more is coming … the surprising tempi of the
first movement … and then the famous timpani duel at the end
remains musical rather than manic and gains in every way. Same
with the side-drum in the Fifth. One might point to the composer’s
instructions to allow the player to overwhelm the orchestra,
but the restraint serves to drive the music even harder rather
than halt it. It shows great musical judgement.
So, the Fourth and Fifth symphonies —the highest
hurdles — are accomplished with apparent ease. Now I am intrigued.
Start at the beginning of the set. Symphony No. 1 is simply
glorious: the Andante gives me the wistful landscape
I missed with the Liverpool recording. The Czechs’ energy makes
their pace sound motivated but it is not fast, and their expansive
timing at 8:08 compared to 6:55 makes my point.
After three masterly symphonies I am getting
excited but exhausted. In the search for the ultimate Nielsen
cycle I have the least expensive (3 CDs for the price of one)
and three ultimate performances. I don’t believe in a six-planet
alignment, such eclipses can’t happen … or can they?
On to Symphony No. 2, where my all-time favourite
is a one-off Stokowski live event in 1967 recorded by Danish
Radio and recently restored to the catalogue by IMG. Unbelievably,
yet unarguably, Kuchar outwits and overtakes the great Stoki,
creating the finest Four Temperaments I have ever experienced.
Modern stereo sound closes the case for Kuchar. By now the perspiration
is dripping and the prospect of six symphonies auditioned over
a weekend is achievable: despite fatigue the adrenalin drives
The Third Symphony Espansiva, someone
told me, was performed on this set without the vocalists, thus
uncredited; but fortunately my informant was confused. The first
movement is so beautifully played that, unusually, I was not
anticipating the glorious entry of human voices, but rather
savouring each moment of the approach. There was, as ever, not
a foot put wrong in the Third Symphony, but for me the Second
had overshadowed it. I decided to postpone the enigmatic Sixth
Symphony to the following morning.
We know that with Sinfonia semplice Nielsen
challenged Danish musicians of the 1920s and lost some admirers.
After many decades modern musicians show that the trap is to
be phased by the originality; just straight musical skill unveils
the meaning, both absolute and programmatic. Kuchar’s fine performance
adds weight to the argument that it is Nielsen’s greatest symphonic
statement but also distinguishes his own approach to the entire
cycle. The dilemma of the controversial second movement: do
you portray the intended ugliness by which the composer parodied
modernism? Or, like Ormandy’s trail-blazing performance, do
you express the refinement of the fabulous Philadelphians? Kuchar
is squarely in the camp of the latter exquisite beauty and has
me revert to Bostock’s rude, earthy, and biographical Nielsen.
I don’t believe the Czechs have fallen at the
last hurdle. There is no single perspective on a complex symphony
but I will risk reputation, friendships and credibility to state
that Brilliant has the ultimate cycle by a convincing margin.
All six works at the level of any rival performance and the
Second in a new orbit. Engineering to match. It isn’t just the
ideal set for beginners, it proves that we are all beginners.
If this Brilliant set was marketed as a Limited Edition with
wooden crate and gold-plated audiophile CDs at £110, I would
advise everyone to buy or live in darkness. At £11 - at full
UK price for all three discs - I hope you will not hesitate.
I am joyful at the discovery of this set, apologetic
for overlooking it, curious for more information, and looking
forward to extended listening. These discs are nothing less
than a paradigm shift.