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REVIEW
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7, FS16 (1891-1892) [33:20]
Symphony No. 2, Op. 16, FS 29 The Four Temperaments (1901-1902) [33:09]
Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, FS60 Sinfonia espansiva (1910-1911) [37:57]
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, FS76 The Inextinguishable (1914-1916) [35:08]
Symphony No. 5, Op. 50, FS97 (1921-1922) [36:00]
Symphony No. 6, FS116, Sinfonia semplice (1924-1925) [35:18]
Gillian Keith (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone) (3); Paul Turner (timpani), Geraint Daniel (timpani) (4); John Bradbury (clarinet), Paul Patrick (side-drum) (5)
BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds
rec. 2012-15, MediaCity, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10859 (3) [3 CDs: 66:44 + 73:20 + 71:34]

There has never been more attention on Nielsen than there is this year, and that’s a good thing.  Often, musical anniversaries churn out hackneyed rehashes of a composer’s output, but for me this one has really made me appreciate Nielsen more.  Prior to this he was a rather peripheral figure in my musical vision, but several concerts and CD releases have made me reappraise him positively.  This release from Storgårds and his BBCPO collaborators have only deepened that process.

You get a flavour of the whole set from the way the opening of Symphony No. 1 bursts out of the speakers.  Those energetic opening bars bristle with energy, with playing that is precise, clean and vigorous, combined with conducting that is exciting and propulsive.  There is a sense of heft to the playing – this is music that is really going somewhere – but equally it dissolves into beautiful lyricism at key points, such as when the second subject appears on the scene.  The brass sound particularly great, putting a very pleasing full stop to the movement, which brings me to the Chandos sound, which is up to their typical high standard.  True, it isn’t SACD, which might put this set at a disadvantage to those of other recent arrivals like Colin Davis (LSO Live) or Alan Gilbert (with the New York Philharmonic on Da Capo), but it didn’t bother me a jot.  The sound for the Andante second movement is very rich, and pleasingly mellifluous with it, especially the lovely string tone, and the third movement really plays up the Brahmsian elements; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard them so pronounced, with rich, warm string tone, glowing horns, and the fact that it’s not-quite-a-scherzo, just the way Brahms would have approached a third movement.  The finale feels a bit like a work in progress, as though Nielsen were still finding his feet as a symphonist - as, indeed, he was.  It’s quite episodic but, equally, there’s a real sense of argument and of going somewhere.  What I like about Storgårds’ interpretation is that it doesn’t sound laboured or lumbering: instead it sounds very fresh.  There’s something very exciting about it, as though Nielsen were experimenting with lots of things rather than making lots of mistakes, and I liked that.  It’s fresh, exciting playing, combined with a conductor who believes in the score, giving an overall impression of energy, perhaps even of ebullience.

Storgårds turns the microscope as effectively onto No. 2.  This study of “The Four Temperaments” is a gift for a conductor who likes to paint a picture, and Storgårds does this very well.  The first movement (Choleric) isn’t so much angry as unruly.  The different elements of the music - and sections of the orchestra - seem to burst in on each other, as if very keen to get their own word heard over the others.  That makes it all pretty exciting, and the sound really helps, too, as the ear can pick out where the different sections of the orchestra are placed, adding to the sense of a vigorous argument.  It’s not all unrelenting aggression, though: there is some beautifully sweet wind playing as well, especially with the lovely oboe in the second subject, and the coda is particularly fun.  That’s the bit that sounds the most angry, with bits of sentences seemingly spat out at one another from across the orchestra.  Likewise, the second movement doesn’t really sound phlegmatic: instead it sounds rather blissful, almost pastoral.  Nielsen’s idea (and inspiration) of somebody sitting back lazily, with the fish swimming around him, is especially fitting here.  The third movement begins with a fantastic, soulful wail from the strings, and they keep this up throughout, very compellingly.  It becomes immense when they get to the great climax, just before the end, drawing in the timpani, winds and all the rest.  Storgårds shapes this into a great tone poem of sorrow, which is really very compelling. But by the time we get to the finale, all is right with the world, with upbeat, bright string playing, full of joy and interest; all except for that bizarre melancholic episode in the middle, where that tone from the strings in the third movement returns again.  All told, though, this is a very successful reading, which gets inside the mood and the notes of every movement and which, put simply, works.

Of all the performances on the set, it was the third that most made me reappraise the work as a whole.  There is a scale about it which I found very impressive: Espansiva in more ways than one.  Those repeated chords bash their way out of the speakers before unleashing an allegro of fantastic power which pauses only for a wind-led second subject.  This, to me, brought alive the energy of Nielsen’s writing like no other reading I have heard, and I found the sweep of it to be utterly compelling.  The slow movement then expands into a beautiful piece of space, the horn gently calling to the violins and setting off a long, meandering melody that feels like a real Midsummer-Night’s-Dream.  The entry of the voices towards the end is really lovely, too, captured beautifully at just the right distance.  Of all the symphonies that involve voices this is, bluntly, the one where the quality of those voices matters the least, but Gillian Keith and Mark Stone do sound lovely, their wandering melismas floating in gently with a scent of mystery.  The Allegretto turns much more jokey, with the central role of the winds playing to the orchestra’s strengths, before the strings launch the finale with a theme whose sweep, breadth and tone colour seem to suggest a very Danish take on Elgarian Nobilmente.  This leads the whole movement and climaxes in a very exciting coda that combines grandeur with optimism.

That same grandeur and optimism are present by the bucket-load in The Inextinguishable.  The opening feels like the collision of two atoms, the violins and winds powering up unstoppably while the timpani thrash and the brass underpin.  It’s all as if you’re joining a conversation half-way through, but the wind-down to the first appearance of the clarinet theme is handled naturally, not at all forced, and indeed the whole opening movement seems to move naturally and steadily through its different episodes, even holding its nerve though the “raindrop” section of the middle.  Contrastingly, I loved the daintiness of the wind playing in the second movement and the dramatic outpouring from the violins at the start of the slow movement, played as a howl of anguish, which then winds on into something intensely dramatic and deeply searching.  The finale launches with a tremendously exciting string scamper, abruptly punctuated by the timpani, but there is thoughtfulness and subtlety here, too, not least with the meandering violin theme that seems to amble its way quietly into the gentle reappearance of the first movement’s clarinet theme.  The timpani battle itself is pretty rumbustious when it appears, though perhaps not as ear-splitting as some would like, but I found the blaze of the main theme as it descends into the coda very satisfying.

The opening of No. 5 sounds like the running of a Sibelian river, with its murmuring strings and bassoon eking out its theme. There's something very unorthodox - and very un-Sibelian - about this one, though, which the anarchic, mock-martial second section does its best to throw off course. In fact, there's something quite ghostly, almost threatening about this whole movement, with the ending curdling nicely in Storgårds' hands. This is a tricky movement to judge, and he does a good job. If anything, the ensuing Adagio section is even trickier, with the repeated interruptions of the snare drum, but there is both beauty and power in the orchestral sound here, with a haunting clarinet solo that sees the movement out.  The second movement opens with even more of a sense of a river in full flow, gaining momentum then ebbing away. The spidery fugue that begins the presto section sounds emaciated - brilliantly transparent strings, here - at its beginning, and then takes on a demonic level of energy as it gains momentum and power in its orchestration.  Those same strings then sound entirely different in the Andante Poco Tranquillo section, warmer and more consolatory (just), and the ending mixes vigorous energy with tremendously exciting forward momentum so that the forces of goodness win again; only this time it feels as though the battle was much harder fought.

The whole team rise admirably to the challenge of No. 6, whose opening does everything that it can to draw you into the composer's trap, the tinkling bells, the jovial winds and the lyrical sweep of the strings doing their best to live up to the Semplice of the title.  Storgårds doesn't overdo the sardonic undertone, but nor does he underplay it, and at the 7-minute mark, when the winds launch the fugue that later causes such chaos, it's perky but also contains the seeds of the anarchy that hits so shortly afterwards.  When the storm finally breaks it's so disturbing in its scale because the ground for it had been so well prepared in advance, and the string lament that follows it seems only to intensify the grief.  The ensuing mania of the coda is even more strident, settling down to a violin line of funereal intensity, and the major key final chord fools nobody.  Likewise, the tone of sardonic bitterness sits right on the surface of the Humoreske second movement, complete with insistent side drum and skirling winds, and the tone of the BBC strings in the slow movement is so intense as to evoke an elegy of war.  The finale then builds up a head of almost Mahlerian power in its skirling winds, swirling strings and volcanic brass that seems unafraid to look death in the face and then, most impressively of all, to laugh at it.  The orchestral colour is magnificent here, and it's something the BBC Philharmonic prove themselves more than up to.  Storgårds, too, proves himself to be a master of building and executing Nielsen's paragraphs, controlling the tension without sounding pedantic, and screwing up the tension with intensity and excitement.

For me this set was brilliantly played, expertly shaped and recorded in exhilarating sound: in short, a revelation. Previously, my touchstone for these works had been Blomstedt’s Danish RSO version, but now Storgårds has more than surpassed these for me, the excitement of his readings making me hear these works in a new way. This isn’t just an anniversary plod through Nielsen: it’s a proper exploration, so join the explorers and prepare to be challenged.

Simon Thompson
 
Previous reviews: Brian Wilson, Dan Morgan and Gwyn Parry-Jones

 

 




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