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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 4, FS 76, Op. 29 The Inextinguishable (1914-16) [36:33]
Symphony No. 5, FS 97, Op. 50 (1920-22) [38:30]
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
rec. Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, 21-22 October 1999 (Symphony No. 4) and 26-27 November 1999 (Symphony No. 5); a co-production with DR/Danish National Broadcasting Corporation. DDD
previously released on Dacapo 8.224156
NAXOS 8.570739 [75:03]
Experience Classicsonline

This is the third and final volume of the Nielsen symphonies reissued by
Naxos from original Dacapo sources. It has more than adequate but less extensive notes than those accompanying the original issue. I enthusiastically welcomed Volumes One (see review) and Two (see review). With this volume, things are not quite as clear-cut. As before, the main competition for these symphonies - often considered Nielsen’s greatest - is the mid-price Decca reissues with Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony. As with the earlier volumes, Schønwandt’s performances with the Danes have a certain natural quality that is as beguiling as it is difficult to describe. At the same time, Blomstedt’s recordings have an extra dimension of excitement and drive that’s hard to ignore. After listening several times to both discs of these symphonies and doing a close comparison, I come down in favor of Schønwandt for the Fourth and Blomstedt for the Fifth. Also, to a greater degree than for the earlier volumes, these two symphonies have had some legendary recordings that have stood the test of time. Here I’m thinking in particular of Jean Martinon’s Fourth with the Chicago Symphony (see review) and Leonard Bernstein’s Fifth with the New York Philharmonic (see review). Still, Blomstedt and Schønwandt - the latter primarily in the Fourth - have nothing to fear from the competition. 

Starting with the Fourth Symphony, Schønwandt obtains a fine orchestral balance that brings out both the warmth and the dynamism. Clearly part of this is due to the superb acoustics of the Danish Radio Concert Hall, but the idiomatic performance of the orchestra and the unobtrusive direction of Schønwandt are what make this sound so beautiful. This is not to imply any blandness but a real naturalness that does not draw attention to itself. And when it comes to excitement, I have never heard a better timpani duel in the last movement. Whereas Schønwandt’s opening Allegro is exuberant and sparkling, Blomstedt’s is harder hitting and more exciting if not as joyous. The difference in the recorded sound here is notable: more brilliant for Blomstedt and warmer for Schønwandt. Both are valid, I think. However, in the Poco allegretto second movement Schønwandt wins hands down with his more relaxed tempo and suppler woodwinds. Also, I find Blomstedt’s clarinet with what sounds like clicking keys annoying. There is not a lot of difference in the third movement between the two performances. The sound on Blomstedt’s recording can get a bit shrill in the upper strings at times and is a little congested when the whole orchestra is playing fortissimo. In the blazing finale, Blomstedt is dynamite with riveting timpani. So is Schønwandt, with terrific trombones cutting through at 1:12-1:17—more impressive than in the same place for Blomstedt. Overall, Schønwandt’s brass is very impressive as is his timpani duel. Here, the clearer, cleaner sound on his recording makes the famous duel really tell. Blomstedt’s while very powerful is not as clear. It is fitting that Schønwandt’s timpanists, René Mathiesen and Christian Utke Schiøler, get credit on the back of the disc. I wouldn’t want to be without either recording of this great work, but if forced to choose, I would pick Schønwandt over Blomstedt. 

In the Fifth Symphony, though, things are reversed. Of all of Schønwandt’s Nielsen cycle, this is the only mildly disappointing account. Taken on its own it certainly more than satisfactory, but when compared to Blomstedt, for example, it comes off as a bit tame. It still has enough interest to recommend the disc, especially since it comes coupled with such a superlative Fourth. It is notable that Blomstedt’s overall timing for this work is 35:34, while Schønwandt’s is 38:30. The extra three minutes do make a difference and not in Schønwandt’s favor. In the beginning Schønwandt’s orchestral choirs are well delineated, and the placing of the timpani in the march is excellent. When it comes to the famous snare drum solo, though, Schønwandt sounds too tame. There is simply no question here who will win the battle between the snare drum and the rest of the orchestra. Indeed, the brass is spectacular throughout. The bassoon and clarinet solos near the end of the symphony’s first part I, the Adagio, are also wonderful, as they are for Blomstedt. With Blomstedt’s battle, however, there is the sense of a real struggle between the drums and the rest of the orchestra. 

The same holds true for the symphony’s second part. Blomstedt’s more flowing tempos are really a plus. In the Allegro Schønwandt is more straightforward and a little rigid, though his orchestra plays spectacularly with whooping horns, terrific lower brass, and solid timpani. While the lower brass for Blomstedt is not quite as telling, his timpani resound like gunshots, and the performance as a whole is more exciting. This is true, as well, in the following Presto where Blomstedt’s faster tempo is not only exciting but even frightening. Both conductors capture the tranquillo of the following movement’s Andante poco tranquillo extremely well and are more evenly matched here than elsewhere in the symphony. The symphony’s ending with its burst of glory in the brass is well captured in both recordings, but again Blomstedt is just that much more blazing. As in the earlier symphony, Schønwandt’s soloists - here Niels Thomsen, clarinet and Tom Nybye, snare drum - receive credit on the back of the disc case. As far as the clarinet solos are concerned, this is truly deserved and both performances are well matched. However, as I mentioned earlier, Blomstedt’s snare drummer is superior to Schønwandt’s, at least as heard on the recordings. 

The bottom line: both recordings are recommended, especially Schønwandt’s for the Fourth and Blomstedt’s for the Fifth. Both are budget priced. If, however, you can choose only one, I’d go with Blomstedt ‘s Double Decca where you get superb performances of the last three symphonies and the Little Suite for Strings and Hymnus Amoris thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, if you are collecting the Schønwandt series, do not hesitate.

Leslie Wright




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