Four Symphonies
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 [46:36}
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 3, OP. 27, Sinfonia Espansiva [31:19]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, From the New World [41:40]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82 [35:41]
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. June 11 (Nielsen), June 13 (Brahms), June 17 (Sibelius) and June 19 (Dvorak) 2009
Picture format: NTSC 16:9, HD. Sound: DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo. Region Code 0
Bonus Discussions with Thomas Dausgaard [45.52]
Bonus Subtitles in German, French, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese
Booklet Danish, English, German, French
UNITEL CLASSICA/C MAJOR 710508 [2 DVDs: 213:52]

Whatever other new releases are in the pipeline this year, this will surely be one of my top recordings for 2012! This 2 DVD set proved enthralling, from the lightning-strike downbeat that begins Brahms’ First, to the massive chords that bring an end to Sibelius’ Fifth. With crystal-clear picture, exceptionally rich sound, unobtrusive camera work - except in the Brahms, see below - and the fascinating introductions by Dausgaard, this is an incredibly impressive set.
First, some background. In the bonus material, Dausgaard explains that these are performances from a series of Summer Concerts given in 2009. The series was designed to attract a different audience. The concerts happened in the early evening, at a time when most people are leaving work. They feature a shorter performance than the typical Classical concert, often featuring one main work, so that the event lasts no longer than an hour. The orchestra usually dresses informally, and Dausgaard tells of one audience member who expressed delighted surprise that a member of the orchestra would wear sandals! Before the work is played, Dausgaard usually speaks to the audience about the music they are about to hear. For this recording, the orchestra and conductor decided to wear their traditional formal wear. Instead of recording Dausgaard speaking to the audience, the production team has recorded him talking about the works in another room. While I appreciate their decision to wear formal wear - I suspect looking at sandals could become tiresome after a while - I regret the decision to have the introductions without an audience and in English. This is not a disparaging comment about Dausgaard’s English skills, but the interaction between audience and conductor would have added another layer of interest. Nevertheless, he speaks eloquently about the music, not in technical terms but in imagery and feeling. I found his talks completely engaging and appreciated how his descriptions shed light on his interpretive ideas.
Since Dausgaard is a major exponent of historically informed performance practice, I was anxious to start with the Brahms and Dvořák. In his recordings with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra for BIS’s Opening Doors series, Dausgaard has recorded symphonies of Schubert, Schumann and two by Dvořák, including the ninth. While I enjoyed that for the clarity it brought to inner lines and the greater presence that the wind sections had in the overall sound picture, the string section just seemed too small to serve the music fully. His interpretation has not changed in any significant way, and the difference in timing between his recording with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and this new one is less than 30 seconds. The Allegros of Movements 1 and 4 are faster than the norm, but the Danes seem even more comfortable with these tempos than their Swedish colleagues. The string playing is well articulated, displaying admirable ensemble even in the trickiest passages. The brass is allowed to cut through the texture at climaxes with a rich burnished sound. The woodwind playing is full of character, and the cor anglais solo in the second movement is breathtakingly beautiful. The entire movement flows with an organic inevitability that never allows the music to become maudlin or sentimental. The Scherzo is filled with rambunctious humour, and the coda of the fourth movement is played with such verve and power it literally lifted me out of my seat.
The Brahms shows similar ideas. The Introduction is powerful but well balanced, with the complex web of voices above the timpani strokes allowed to emerge clearly. Dausgaard sets another bracing Allegro for the remainder of the movement, and his orchestra is with him every step of the way. The inner movements again display a woodwind section of great character, and here is my one concern. Throughout the symphonies, we often see players smiling at one another or even to themselves as they play a passage - their joy in playing is obvious and enjoyable to see. However, for this piece - players seem to share the first chair in the woodwinds - the principal flute and oboe have too much of a good time together. They move together, they make constant eye contact and smile as they play - perhaps if I was watching from the hall, I would find it charming, but with so many close-ups of the couple, it began to seem more about them than the music. Perhaps this bothered me more than it would you, and it is certainly a minor quibble in the midst of such excellence.

With Nielsen’s Sinfonia Espansiva and the Sibelius Fifth, we are on the orchestra’s home ground. In his remarks about Nielsen, Dausgaard makes an intriguing comment about sometimes loving Nielsen’s music and sometimes not wanting to do anything with it - I wanted to hear more about that! Nevertheless, this performance communicates a passionate love of the music from conductor and orchestra alike. I was struck by how modern it sounded - Dausgaard and the orchestra subtly highlight the quirkiness of the rhythms, the unique harmonic progressions and the asymmetrical phrasing. Nielsen conceived this symphony as a celebration of life and here that joy is readily communicated.
Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony is a well integrated reading, the many tempo changes masterfully handled. As the first movement tempos quicken, the woodwinds instil a sense of dance that erupts in the Coda as the brass and timpani bring the music to a rousing conclusion. The second movement variations offer numerous opportunities for both the woodwinds and strings to shine, and they make the most of those opportunities. The woodwind instruments evoke the nature sounds that were so important to Sibelius. The third movement, with the horns mimicking the call of swans, is beautifully rendered, the strings achieving some astounding soft playing. Dausgaard does not over-sentimentalise the famous melody on its two appearances, and in the final pages the brass play their layered melodies with thrilling abandon. Dausgaard conducts the final measures as written. The massive staggered chords register their full effect because of the vast silence in between.
I won’t say that these are now my favourite recordings of these four works but each contains so much genius; no one performance can possibly reveal everything. What these recordings do offer is music making of the highest order, led by a conductor who has clearly given a great deal of time and thought to learning these scores - all conducted from memory - and arriving at an understanding of what they are meant to convey. More impressive still, the orchestra seems to be of one mind with Dausgaard about how this music should go. Everyone seems to be working towards the same interpretation. That kind of outcome happens all too rarely. I hope it continues for many years to come.
David A. McConnell 

Masterwork Index: Brahms 1 ~~ Dvorak 9 ~~ Nielsen 3 ~~ Sibelius 5

This is special music-making.