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Carl August NIELSEN (1865 – 1931)
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable Op 29 (1914-1916) [31:21]
Symphony No. 5 Op 50 (1921-1922) [35:17]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, The Barbican, London: 6, 9 May 2010 (4); 1, 4 October 2009 (5). Hybrid: SACD stereo + 5.1 and CD
LSO LIVE LSO0694 [66:38]
Carl August NIELSEN (1865 – 1931)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor Op7 (1891-92) [33:20]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia semplice (1924-25) [34:51]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, The Barbican, London: 2, 4 October 2011 (1); 26 May, 2 June 2011 (6). Hybrid: SACD stereo + 5.1 and CD
LSO LIVE LSO0715 [68:11]
Carl August NIELSEN (1865 – 1931)
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1901-02) [31:54]
Symphony No. 3 Espansiva (1910-11) [34:41]
Lucy Hall (soprano); Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, The Barbican, London: 4, 6 December 2011 (2); 11, 13 December 2011 (3). Hybrid: SACD stereo + 5.1 and CD
LSO LIVE LSO0722 [66:35]

The first Nielsen symphony cycle was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. That 1974 LP set was packaged with a magnificent booklet in a smart white box – the design still stands out. Each symphony had its own disc and a seventh LP carried a talk by Robert Simpson. In the digital age these esteemed analogue recordings under Ole Schmidt are not currently available; in 2013 Alto issued on CD Symphonies 4 and 5 and we have been informed that the complete boxed set will appear on Alto in a few weeks..
The 21st century LSO recorded cycle was eagerly awaited. See MusicWeb International reviews of the 2009 concerts – but so often in the past incandescent concerts have yielded mediocre recordings. Happily there is nothing mediocre about these performances; they are live but they are not what I expected. Nor are they easy to appraise.
The music was administered like a drip to an addict issued over a two year period in the form of three CD/SACD hybrids. I have lingered but not relaxed over this review. I prepared the first instalment and then hesitated to post copy to the editor. One cannot doubt the depth and passion of Colin Davis nor his performances of Nielsen but do they rise to the top? Many great conductors, especially those who started with Sibelius, are unaware that they are coming to or from another planet. Davis is too great to make any errors of judgement and the London Symphony Orchestra down to the last musician was born to play Nielsen symphonies.
Overall, these three discs, available separately at medium price, are a safe recommendation in terms of musical performance and recording. That said, they do not sweep the board in the way that I had hoped. The engineering serves the art but is not “demonstration” hi-fi; certainly not in the same way as achieved by the new Sibelius symphony cycle from BIS (Vänskä/Minnesota). The LSO are recorded in old-fashioned sound – like EMI or DG from the 1960s, which means natural but soft and compressed. The various sections of the orchestra are differently lit. Despite the DSD mastering the results fall short of the excellent LSO Live sound. I revisited their recorded symphonies of Beethoven, Berlioz, Dvorak and Sibelius for comparison. I have spoken to LSO Live people on this subject and they do not agree with my impression that the Nielsen recordings fell below previous standards. However, if I am right then it may be that this is down to the absence of celebrated sound engineer, Tony Faulkner.
How to summarise these modern performances? With difficulty. I have heard more Nielsen symphonies than I have eaten proverbial hot dinners. I have heard the evolution from the conductors who worked with the composer through the humanist sixties that rediscovered Sibelius and Mahler and now the analytical and crafted playing associated with the new Carl Nielsen Editions. I sense individuality in the artists but overall a convergence. International orchestras become more professional but more alike.
Davis is a musician’s musician. His Nielsen is more absolute than programmatic. I do not mean bland. On the contrary, it is always passionate, thrilling and powerful, as new insights and accents emerge. In a sense Davis lets the music speak for itself, making the conductor an interpreter rather than a personality. Perhaps this is the supreme virtue. I still find myself listening to Douglas Bostock and the Liverpool Orchestra who express more personality to convey the composer’s symphonic individuality. I suggest symphonies 1, 3 and 6 are Bostock’s high points precisely because they are Nielsen’s most biographical symphonies. The so-called war-symphonies 4 and 5 belong to Davis.
This may suggest why the new London cycle was strategically launched with Nielsen’s most admired and absolute masterpieces: symphonies 4 and 5. The final instalment, recently issued, symphonies 2 and 3, crossed in the post with the first instalment of what is the 21st Nielsen symphony cycle on CD – at least by my reckoning. Also on premium SACD hybrid and also a great orchestra revisiting Nielsen, I have already reviewed the sensational recording of Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.
The American performance swept me away sonically. Dacapo wisely flew over a crack Danish recording team and acted as a catalyst to settle my assessment of the completed Davis/LSO set in perspective. The Dacapo disc takes off, almost literally, with a stupendous rendition of Symphony No. 3, which, exactly one hundred years ago, propelled Nielsen above all his parochial critics and doubters. Now it serves to contrast London and New York. The English orchestra is like a fast and agile sports car. The Americans turn corners in a limousine with V-8 engine and perfect grip. The sound is superior - again it is a live event – but there is already a perfection of insight from Alan Gilbert that tips the balance in his favour. I am impatient to hear how he will perform the biographical symphonies 1 and 6, and the masterpiece works 4 and 5 which have achieved breathtaking recordings from the world’s great conductors including Bernstein and Kondrashin.
The English cycle is the vision of Colin Davis. The LSO simply deliver what the conductor wants. They make it sound easy; I can’t give them higher praise than that. Having stated overall that Davis allows Nielsen’s music to unfold without unique selling gimmicks I have postponed indefinitely a review of the six works individually. I found it a slow process in part because of the subjectivity. My views and my moods have changed and these factors caused me to doubt my ability to judge Sir Colin Davis, or even the review process itself. Perhaps this is a legacy we need time to appreciate.
This is a very safe and sophisticated cycle of the Carl Nielsen symphonies but it does not sweep the board and crunch the competition as I had anticipated. Almost, maybe, but not quite.
Jack Lawson
Author of Carl Nielsen and Carl Nielsen on Record (discography)