The man of destiny I would most like to meet by far is Carl
August Nielsen. His kindness and humanity along with his humour
and insight into the human condition fascinate me. In a BBC
Radio interview (February 1971), Jascha Horenstein, a conductor
who worked with the Danish composer, said of him, “Nielsen was
a very lovely man, very pleasant, quiet, soft-spoken; extremely
modest, old-fashioned in his way, in his dress; very human,
very considerate in rehearsals, not over-demanding, very experienced
in dealing with orchestras …”
In 1947 the first Nielsen symphony released
was the Third played by the Danish Radio Orchestra under Erik
Tuxen for Decca:
you had to carry home six brittle shellac discs, each side
lasting no more than three minutes. In 1974 the first symphonic
cycle was issued (on six
LPs). Now, the Danish label ClassicO’s ambition of recording
the Complete Orchestral music is almost fulfilled pending
the issue of the eighth and final CD. This review covers the
first four discs.
Nielsen’s momentous symphony-cycle conducted
by Douglas Bostock has also been issued on four CDs by Membran
“Quadromania” (MMBN 45319) and by Scandinavian Classics. As with
the project of BIS of the 1980s the scope here is Nielsen’s
complete orchestral music. For the Swedish label Bis,
Myung-Whun Chung completed only four of the six symphonies
plus the concertos and other orchestral works. Incomplete
they may be but incandescent and brilliant they still are.
BIS released their set with Neeme Järvi, also conducting the
Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra, but his 4th and
6th symphonies may best be described as professional
Having supplemented their symphonic cycle with
the three concertos, ClassicO have recorded a final volume
of orchestral music. It is to be hoped that this will make
available for the first time music Nielsen composed for a
Danish play, Moderen — The Mother[land] — written in
1920 to celebrate the post-war return of territories. The
melodrama is said to be dated - I cannot comment here - but
the haunting beauty of the music is confirmed by the fact
that small excerpts have proved so popular that they are frequently
played and recorded.
In the search for the best symphonic cycle
- if one can exist - the critics’ consensus is Herbert Blomstedt’s
set of recordings with the San Francisco Symphony for Decca.
This Swedish conductor is a committed Nielsenite, the label
has a well-earned reputation for the finest sound engineers,
and the set is self-recommending despite strong competition.
Perfectionists must look further to individual issues noting
the authenticity of three Danish conductors who were colleagues
of Carl Nielsen and the Russian-born, Austro-German trained
Horenstein who also worked with the composer. In 1927 Horenstein
prepared the Fifth Symphony for two performances under Wilhelm
So which to choose between mono or modern?
ClassicO’s “marketing handle” is their completeness
of scores and their use of the Carl Nielsen Critical Edition
of the symphonies. Only Michael Schønwandt’s cycle on Dacapo
competes here and it boasts the expertise of the Danish Radio
Symphony Orchestra. By May or June 2009, his entire cycle
should be available on three Naxos budget CDs (vol.
2); not much more than the cost of one of the eight ClassicOs
as things stand. Let battle commence!
In love and war, battles are lost or won before
they start; all is in the preparation. Maestro Bostock has
done the deepest research; for example he has peered into
the above-mentioned documentary recordings in their inglorious
mono sound. He has gained much from the composer’s colleagues
but he has not made slavishly modern copies. Neither has he
helped the composer to say what he really meant, or should
have meant, by imposing his own vision on the scores; he has
respected the scores and (as stated) used the authoritative
The choice of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
was, I am told, artistic rather than opportunistic. Here was
an orchestra with the right potential but without the baggage.
Very risky; and congratulations to ClassicO for taking the
risk, because it paid off. The playing is brilliant and idiomatic.
It has the raw power that Nielsen needs, but here is my biggest
surprise: I feared that this earthy quality and Bostock’s
dynamism might drive the music … yes, it does, but the lyrical
beauty so vital to Nielsen’s humanity is perhaps the finest
achievement throughout this cycle. It is simply wonderful
in combination with the masculine, even aggressive drive.
I am passionate about the crusade that sound
engineering should serve the music. Yes, one can perceive
a great event from a flawed tape recording, but Carl Nielsen
rightly denounced the crackling gramophone and the hissing
wireless as leaching the vitamins from the music. It compromises
the voices of fine instruments and artists; it loses dynamic
contrast and detail. Rich harmonies, rhythmic patterns, dialogues
within the orchestra, these and more are sacrificed by a poor
hall acoustic and by low-fidelity. Now - hi-fi sermon over
- I am happy to report that we have throughout excellent sound
that captures Mr Bostock’s handiwork in fine and very natural
detail. Many digital recordings are detailed but harsh, or
even painful on the ear. This is a full and natural acoustic
yet able to give analytical detail at the same time. Hats
off to the producer Martin Cotton and engineer Tony Wass.
It makes a big difference and favours this cycle above its
rivals. On the subject of credits, let us here acknowledge
the guiding hands of Knud Ketting who contributes the insightful
The ultimate test is artistic performance,
and as I have stated without reservation the Royal Liverpool
Orchestra rises to the occasion. It has its own signature,
just as valid as any Danish orchestra’s if you agree with
my view that these are European symphonies.
Bostock is a true Nielsenite and the preparation
and successful execution speaks to me as follows. Here is
a new attempt to let the scores, or rather the composer, speak
to the listener. The conductor is a performer rather than
an interpreter; etymologically he conducts the current per
(through); he does not stand inter (between). He inspires
the orchestra with Nielsen not with Bostock! For example,
in Bernstein’s acclaimed Fifth,
the conductor is clarifying points by exaggeration. Bostock
clarifies by balancing the orchestra, promoting ensemble;
in short by pure musicianship.
When I say Bostock is a true Nielsenite, indeed,
one of a very small elite, I mean that he feels the pulse
of the Danish composer with all the individual and idiomatic
elements which have eluded and felled otherwise great conductors.
In one respect he towers above them all: as Nielsen’s biographer
I engage the musicologists with my proposition that symphonies
1, 3, and 6 contain many autobiographical elements. In his
notes for ClassicO, Knud Ketting quotes a letter from Nielsen
to Wilhelm Stenhammar who conducted Symphony No. 1 in 1910:
“May I be permitted to thank you sincerely for your interest
in this work, which lies far back in time and in my production,
but which has always been very close to my heart, because
it is very personally felt; yes, in fact far too personal
for a symphony.” (my italics).
The highest achievement of Bostock’s cycle,
I say, is his musical closeness to Nielsen. Symphony No 1
(1892) is a wonderful performance; like the composer himself
the orchestra come fully prepared from the first chord. We
hear the triumphant arrival of a modest but brilliant young
composer. Truly it has been said that no first symphony of
a man in his mid-twenties has before or since rivalled its
content and power. An ace card is slapped down, as it were,
on the reception desk of European music. I will share my unbreakable
association of the Andante with the teenage Nielsen
on the high seas, looking back on the island of his childhood
and forward towards his musical training and career in the
capital city. Arguably it comes over more powerfully when
played more at a more leisurely pace but the energy here may
reflect Nielsen’s looking forward!
Be that as it may, Nielsen’s Third Symphony
(1911) is accurately described as the joyful expression of
a man who is settled with a family and career. Here, in the
second movement, human voices are brought in to transcend
mere instruments to great effect. The third and fourth movements
distinctly point to the music of the composer’s Sixth and
most enigmatic symphony.
In his life, Nielsen’s final symphony of 1925
was condemned and remained unpublished; I believe that the
composer only performed it once. It held its secrets for many
decades. Not until the second edition (1979) of Carl Nielsen,
Symphonist did Robert Simpson begin to tackle its riddles
and I am most grateful to the American musicologist Anne-Marie
Reynolds for informing me that during the 1980s the foremost
Nielsen authority, Torben Schousboe (who has now retired)
apologised to her on Nielsen’s behalf.
I stress this because I think 6 is the highest
peak of Bostock’s achievement. In 1966 Eugene Ormandy recorded
the work for CBS.
He achieved a flowing beauty with his “Fabulous Philadelphians”
rather than exaggerating Nielsen’s despairing cries and humorous
denunciation of modern music. Here Bostock unveils a masterpiece
of the 20th century which has found its true interpreter.
Arguably it emerges as a tragic rather than triumphant symphony
but this will be a perennial debate; is a glass half full
or half empty? In the new recording the first movement is
electrifying and one shares the composer’s pain. It has clarity
and certainty, movement and pulse rather than mere fast tempi.
Like Ormandy, it is never so rough that it throws listeners
as the composer turns sharp corners.
If 6 has emerged in the view of some disciples
as Nielsen’s masterpiece, 4 and 5 will continue rightly to
hold their places and popularity. Here the choice is bewildering
and, in my opinion, the competition strong. I keep reverting
to the Inextinguishable by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the
Fifth by Bernstein
(both on CBS/Sony). However, such is the diversity of opinion
of people who have known these symphonies for decades that
while I have singled out for praise maestro Bostock’s 1, 3,
the esteemed reviewers David Fanning and Robert Layton have
praised 2, 4, and 5!
Competing sets in more economic issues will
include Schønwandt from June 2009 when 4 and 5 will join his
finely engineered, excellent performances: also in the new
Critical Edition on three budget Naxos CDs transferred from
the Dacapo label. I also recommend the budget reissues from
Finlandia on three Elatus CDs (vol.
1): Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste;
these are outstanding performances. And last but not least,
most critics’ choice - and I agree enthusiastically - the
San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt is currently packaged
as two 2-CD sets whose interesting couplings restore to the
catalogue Nielsen’s sparkling oratorio, Hymnus Amoris,
recorded by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Ulf
If you seek alternatives to the ClassicO issues
at full price, then do not overlook Kontrapunkt, another Danish
label with a distinguished Nielsen catalogue. Again, the extra
money buys premium recordings and a lot of Nielsen’s valuable
extra-symphonic music. On Kontrapunkt the orchestra is Nielsen’s
home team, the Odense Symphony Orchestra. I confess to the
critic’s problem: when you are enjoying them, you think they
are the best. Certainly, Edward Serov and the Odense musicians
seem to reclaim their own boy’s work.
The biggest difference between ClassicO and
Naxos in their use of the new Carl Nielsen Critical Edition
is in the Fifth Symphony. Despite its importance in 20th
century music, its publishing career was chequered. To secure
international recognition Nielsen’s Third had bypassed the
Danish firm of Hansen. The German publishers Kahnt paid the
composer more but in 1914 the War severed communications in
Europe. Appreciating the worth of Nielsen’s music, a wealthy
friend and industrialist resorted to private publication of
the Fifth Symphony in 1926. Nielsen was always short of time
and it was not carefully done. In 1950 the conductor Erik
Tuxen and the composer’s musical trustee and son-in-law, the
Hungarian violinist Emil Telmányi set out to rectify the situation.
Unfortunately the new score went too far in its corrections
and suggestions with the conductor including his own markings.
These issues are mentioned in ClassicO’s insert and more fully
in David Fanning’s excellent Cambridge Music Handbook on the
Fifth Symphony, published by Cambridge University Press, 1997.
However, the musicians’ feel for a Nielsen
symphony makes more difference to authenticity than small
but welcome corrections. Symphonies 4 and 5 were acclaimed
internationally from their first performances and the CD catalogue
offers many and divergent successful perspectives. You may
prefer the consistency of Bostock’s directness and clarity
but I am more won over by the unearthly qualities of others.
My point emerges immediately the Fifth symphony opens. Nielsen’s
extraordinary wavering violas seem to me to require a mysterious
air, almost held back, as if to reflect the creation of the
cosmos. Nielsen himself pencilled on the score remarks about
restive forces. But arguably Bostock’s clarity is admirable!
You pays your money and takes your choice!
Part Two of my critique of ClassicO’s complete
orchestral works has been delayed. Volume 8 was recorded in
2007 but not announced at the start of March 2009. Vols. 5–7
(the concertos, etc) I paid for in full but have not received
despite three months of chasing by unanswered e-mails, faxes,
phone calls and a Danish friend visiting ClassicO’s premises
with my proof of payment.
If ClassicO is still available and you wish
to make a trial purchase, try the frequent coupling of One
and Six, Nielsen’s youthful and valedictory symphonies; Maestro
Bostock is the one to buy. Arguably for the First, and as
I stated above for the Sixth, a masterpiece has at last found
its true interpreter. The hallmarks of the series are clarity
and authenticity; along with energy comes the kind of beauty
that Karajan once observed does not exist without precision.
OF THE MONTH Carl
(1865 – 1931) The
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar rec. 2005,
Concert Hall Ostrava, Czech Republic. DDD
CLASSICS 92885 [3 CDs: 65:55 + 79:04 + 69:45]
less than a paradigm shift ... see Full Review
Jack Lawson is Secretary of the Carl Nielsen Society of GB;
author of “Carl Nielsen”, Phaidon Press, 1997