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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1, Op. 7, FS16 (1891/92) [33:20]
Symphony No. 2, Op. 16, FS 29 The Four Temperaments (1901/02) [33:09]
Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, FS60 Sinfonia espansiva (1910/11) [37:57]
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, FS76 The Inextinguishable (1914/16) [35:08]
Symphony No. 5, Op. 50, FS97 (1921/22) [36:00]
Symphony No. 6, FS116, Sinfonia semplice (1924/25) [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, MediaCityUK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10859 (3) [3 CDs: 66:44 + 73:20 + 71:34]

Having just attended the three concert BBC Philharmonic cycle of the complete Nielsen Symphonies at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester it was good to be able to revisit the orchestra playing those very same works on this Chandos set.

These concert performances and recordings have rekindled my admiration for Nielsen’s outstanding symphonic legacy that was initially sparked by the Decca recordings from Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony set down in 1987-89 at the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco (review).

There are a number of sets of the Nielsen symphonies in the catalogue, including recent additions in this the 150th anniversary year of the composer’s birth. I have yet to hear the New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert (Dacapo - 1 and 4 ~ 2 and 3 ~ 5 and 6), London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (LSO) and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (BIS - review review).

Written at the end of the Romantic era Nielsen’s characteristic sound-world feels so harmonically adventurous with progressive and unconventional tonality and quick, sometimes abruptly shifting dynamics. Make no mistake this is eminently accessible, high quality music.

Nielsen’s First Symphony is a product of the composer’s late twenties and is a rare visitor to concert programmes. It's such an intensely melodic work built firmly on characteristically bold harmonic invention and steely rhythms. Storgårds drives the work excitingly hard in a reading of high vitality, weight and unyielding purpose. Although a symphony that can endure robust treatment Storgårds pushes the envelope rather too wildly at times. This is felt especially in the Scherzo where some rough edges are revealed at the expense of overall unity. A stark contrast is the Andante, a continuous stream of lyricism that feels like a paean to spring. Add to this a passionate and amorous intensity that maybe depicts a romantic encounter.

Nielsen’s Second Symphony widely known as The Four Temperaments took its name from a humorous, rather crude picture the composer saw hanging in a bar in Zealand. The picture showed four panels signifying the human temperaments titled: ‘The Choleric’, ‘The Phlegmatic’, ‘The Melancholic’ and ‘The Sanguine’. Depicting the psychological moods of each panel appealed to Nielsen. In ‘The Choleric’ Storgårds soon whips up the orchestra to a near frenzy. This violent episode probably represents the mood changes of a wildly impetuous choleric. Short in length the second movement ‘The Phlegmatic’, a curiously unhurried Scherzo, could best be described as ‘disarming’. In ‘The Melancholic’ Storgårds immediately produces a dark and mysterious mood - a sort of emotional torment. Bursting into a joyous, carnival mood ‘The Sanguine’ movement has a striking martial feel. Evidently we are being introduced to a thoughtless, rather superficial character deluded by self-importance. Any sense of dark foreboding is a million miles away.

In the case of the Sinfonia Espansiva it seems that Nielsen elevated the tempo marking of the first movement to become the title of the symphony. Storgårds revels in Nielsen’s characteristic Nordic sound-world with warm and colourful textures emerging. In the disarmingly unhurried second movement Andante pastoral, bass-baritone Mark Stone and soprano Gillian Keith in the two wordless vocal parts create a magical effect. Proceedings are ramped up in the optimistic Finale which is even more memorable. It's fresh and reinvigorating with a sense of striding out on a mountain walk in a breathtaking landscape. This movement could easily have come out of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Storgårds advances the music to a determinedly stirring and forceful conclusion.

Awesome in its impact is Nielsen’s heavyweight Fourth Symphony. From the mid-ninetieth century Nielsen’s native Demark had adopted a position of neutrality maintaining its non-aggressive stance during the First World War. That said, Nielsen was not immune to the horrors of a World War that was raging close to Denmark’s borders. Despite the scepticism Storgårds expressed in an interview it is hard to see the Fourth Symphony as anything other than a ‘War’ Symphony. At its heart is the manifesto of the life-force — indomitable and inextinguishable. It’s much admired with a recent BBC Radio 3 trail going as far as describing it as “life affirming”. Bold and incisive as ever Storgårds launches things with ferocious energy. This is a performance of structural integrity and thrilling playing. The crucial elements of dynamic flow and continual movement are compellingly conveyed. My highlight is the emotional intensity created in the slow third movement with the searing strings accompanied by pulsating timpani strokes. In the Finale the amount of energy and drama generated is remarkable especially the powerful E major ending. Impressively the two sets of timpani provide a brutally combative effect. Storgårds’ triumphant reading is a quite overwhelming experience.

Written two decades later than The Four Temperaments Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony is an admirable work deserving of much more concert hall exposure. Cast in two parts this is strikingly evocative music of contrasting moods, an approach so typical of Nielsen. In a recent interview Storgårds felt that this work was more of a ‘War’ Symphony than The Inextinguishable but I see a philosophical theme of ‘life’s struggle’ at its core. With such razor-sharp shifts of tempi and dynamic one senses the conductor digging deep, concentrating on revealing vivid colours and extremes of mood such as good and evil, life and death, chaos and order. It is this sense of struggle that Storgårds and his BBC Philharmonic personify so unfailingly. In the first section the martial character is immediately evident from the four percussionists - markedly from the strident snare-drum and timpani stokes. The lushly sonorous and dramatic passage on the strings accompanied by the horns is remarkable. The brisk passage for two clarinets reminds me of seabird sounds which can be encountered first-hand as it were in Finnish composer Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus with its taped bird-calls. The snare-drum and timpani add to the thrust as the music swells in power and volume. This produces a cacophony of sound, almost demented in its rage. As the volume begins to lessen the klezmer-like solo clarinet and distant drum are heard as everything else fades. The vehement character of the second section grips instantly with vociferous orchestral playing from the BBC Philharmonic. Noticeably the writing communicates a more positive quality. The music is boldly determined but quickly turns demonic with numerous ostinato patterns. As the timpani strokes advance relentlessly the orchestral heft and dissonance of the writing becomes almost unbearable. Credit here to the glowing string section for demonstrating its prowess so magnificently. Nothing seems resolved as the swell to the final climax feels like a fusion of jubilance and dark menace. Despite the numerous changes in key, tempi and dynamic and a few close shaves Storgårds and his players find the energy and commitment to sustain momentum throughout.

A product of the years between the two World Wars Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony is a relatively tough nut to crack as is the intention behind the curiously deceptive Sinfonia semplice title. His least immediately appealing symphony this is an iconoclastic work which can still challenge some listeners today. A composer who strongly felt that ‘life-force’ was all encompassing, here Nielsen’s audacious harmonic schemes and jarring dissonances are paramount. At times it feels as if Nielsen has settled on a number of abstract ideas rather than arriving at a cohesive whole. This accounts for its distinctive, rather enigmatic character. I’m not sure I like the work but my goodness I certainly respect it. Storgårds confirms his prowess with this testing score providing an account that feels spontaneous, decisive and full-blooded yet reveals plenty of detail in the complex textures. The eminently rewarding final movement, a theme and variations, contains some intriguing writing especially variation 6. This takes the form of a haunted and rather disconnected waltz which soon gets knocked out of the way by angry brass outbursts. It’s nice to know it wasn’t only Malcolm Arnold that blew brass raspberries as the symphony comes to a riotous conclusion Nielsen’s final note is an irreverent blast on the tuba.

The Chandos sound team has produced vividly clear and well balanced sonics with an agreeable presence. An interesting and informative essay by Nielsen authority Professor David Fanning is to be found in the booklet. A minor grumble concerns the missed opportunity of not including set the other Nielsen orchestral works for example: Helios Overture, Pan and Syrinx, A Fantasy Journey to the Faroes, Aladdin Suite, and the Maskarade Overture.

Throughout this Nielsen cycle the excellent woodwind section is a match for the finest and much the same goes for the brilliantly played brass. As for the gloriously full-bodied unified strings they are becoming a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. From start to finish Storgårds, with steely assurance, reliable pulse, and bold determination, demonstrates his particular affinity for these immediate and dramatic scores. In constantly impressive performances this captivating Nielsen set is a triumph for conductor and orchestra.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan and Gwyn Parry-Jones



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