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Carl August NIELSEN (1865 – 1931)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor Op. 7 (1891-92) [33:20]
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1901-02) [31:54]
Symphony No. 3 Espansiva (1910-11) [34:41]
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable Op. 29 (1914-1916) [31:21]
Symphony No. 5 Op. 50 (1921-1922) [35:17]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia semplice (1924-25) [34:51]
Lucy Hall (soprano); Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. 2009-2011, The Barbican, London
Hybrid: SACD stereo + 5.1 and CD; Blu-ray Audio 5.1 DTS-HD MA; 2.0 LPCM 24bit/192kHz; Symphonies 1-6 on Audio Blu-ray
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0789 [3 CDs: 65:10 + 65:57 + 70:12; 1 BD-A]

A complete set of Nielsen symphonies is always an attractive prospect. The LSO Live label joins in with the 150th birthday celebrations with this enhanced collection of concert recordings, given the addition of a Blu-ray disc with all of the symphonies, plus downloadable digital files. Now recoupled in chronological order and brought together into a single box set, these performances have already been reviewed in their single disc format by Jack Lawson. He admits to having had some difficulties with this set, considering it “passionate, thrilling and powerful”, but ultimately not a leading contender. John Quinn took a positive view in his review of the box set.

Recent years have seen increasing numbers of recordings of this superb repertoire. Many enthusiasts of a certain age will have started with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ole Schmidt, originally from Unicorn-Kanchana but now available on the Regis label (review). Recorded in St Giles church, a stone’s-throw away from The Barbican, this remains a remarkably strong collection with powerfully communicative properties and a superb balance between bucolic grit, gutsy energy and musical refinement. I would always urge anyone keen on Nielsen or just setting out on this lifetime’s voyage of potent delights to have this set as part of their collection. Standing somewhere between this very first stereo cycle and the present harvest of new recordings is the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s set on the BIS label (review) which remains a highly competitive option.

Sir Colin Davis’s set with the London Symphony Orchestra is very fine as you might expect, but while I was all set on rediscovery and the occasional revelation, I instead found myself looking for ways to be critical while remaining respectful. I am a huge admirer of Sir Colin Davis and these are well-recorded performances made by top musicians, but there is little of that edgy and exciting vibe you might expect from live performances. There are instead a few moments which you find yourself thinking, ‘that could have been better in tune’, or ‘hm, that was a bit scrappy …’, and there are quite a few bum/wrong notes which have been left in – all adding to the live-ness of the recordings but rarely ideal for repeated listening. One can point to the uncertainties in the final movement of the Third Symphony, or that horrible section where the strings become completely unhinged, 9:47 into the first movement of the Sixth Symphony and never quite recover thereafter. Picking over all of these more or less minor points would be churlish and give the unfair impression that this set is something of a disaster which is by no means the case.

While these performances are largely uncontroversial there are some points of interpretation with which I have to take issue. The Andante malinconico of the Second Symphony and the Adagio ma non troppo of the Fifth Symphony for instance are I think both just a little too superficial and swift for most of the expressive points to take real effect, the first movement of the remarkable Fifth lacking something in fearful urgency. These are all performances which no doubt were thrilling when experienced live, but for me there is a feeling of ‘almost, but not quite’ hanging over the entire set.

There are plenty of excellent sounds to be experienced here. The tuba noise halfway through the first movement of the Second Symphony is terrific, solo contributions from the woodwinds are generally very fine indeed and the timpani are always powerful, almost to a fault. Spacious SACD sonics help the Barbican acoustic as far as it can be helped, but with the third section of the Fourth Symphony it almost feels as if you are inside the drums, and they are certainly too massively balanced to allow you to realise there are pizzicato strings playing the same notes, though the ‘battle’ in the final movement is tremendous. I love the trumpet vibrato rising above the orchestra amidst that tumult at the heart of the Fifth Symphony, though there is no energy and drive in the pacing of that build-up to the grand climax and release in the second movement.

Taken on their own terms most listeners are unlikely to be disappointed by the performances on this LSO set, but my overall impression of these recordings has to be set against experiences gained from other recent releases. Listening to Sakari Oramo on the BIS label (see reviews for symphonies 1 & 3, 4 & 5 and 2 & 6) at his best is genuinely life-enhancing with impressive energy, and a sense of intense detail allied to vibrant liveliness. Returning to Sir Colin Davis I can only sum up the cycle as ‘old-fashioned’ sounding, which doesn’t really mean much in context but seems to round up the ‘nice but not quite as inspiring’ feel with which you come away from a listening session. Neither alternative cycle achieves perfection all the way through, but listen to Oramo or Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic (1 & 4, 2 & 3 and 5 & 6) at the top of their game and you have the sense that you are witnessing these symphonies in the highest branches of their evolutionary tree in terms of performance, something which has passed these LSO recordings by. The passion never quite arrives, crucial expressive points are rarely hit on the nail in the ways achieved by others, and that Nielsen ‘spark’ is only sporadically in evidence.

The Sixth Symphony seems destined for neglect as the most misunderstood of the cycle, so as it is certainly one of the highlights of Oramo’s BIS set I would take it as a comparison with Davis’s, in an attempt to justify my comments on the latter. Just take the first few minutes of this symphony with Oramo and you hear detail and drama in all of those intensely observed accents and dynamic rises and falls. Where you might not have understood this music before, it all seems ‘right’ here, with the question and answer of phrases, Nielsen’s way of crashing lines into each other all hallmarks of the other symphonies, but now with a highly-strung, edge-of-the-seat feel of life-crisis desperation. Listen to that violin glissando at 3:57 which from Oramo is like sliding down a razor blade. Oramo knows what he wants from this score and he believes this is what Nielsen would have wanted as well – fantasy of imagination and commitment to the absolute letter and spirit of every note. With Davis, all of the notes are there, but by comparison we are bumbling on rather eccentrically and amiably. There’s no real drama or bite to those entries, no sense of a pitilessly accented life-or-death drive towards ultimate defiance or doom. That violin glissando, here at 4:03, is more the squeal of a bag full of kittens than a tooth-curdling slice of air torn from in front of your face. This is the problem I have with this LSO set. It’s very good and I’m glad to have heard it, but when I want the brutal musical truth from the man who wanted to give history a bloody nose then I will be seeking my references elsewhere.

Presentation with this set is very good indeed. The singers who take part as orchestral members in the Third Symphony are given a photo and a page each in the booklet while we never know, for instance, who plays the heroic side-drum solo in the Fifth Symphony, though all orchestra members are named for each disc. Alas I haven’t graduated to Blu-ray yet so that aspect of the set remains untested, but I’m sure it’s wonderfully convenient.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: John Quinn

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