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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
Note: Dan Morgan reviews the 24/96 download from theclassicalshop.net
CHANDOS CHAN10859 (3) [3 CDs: 66:44 + 73:20 + 71:34]

For many years, the complete sets of Nielsen symphonies conducted by Ole Schmidt with the LSO and by Herbert Blomstedt with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI) or the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (Decca) had this particular niche of the market to themselves, though there were important individual symphony recordings by people like Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Jensen (review review). How things change. Since the turn of the century, there has been a constant stream of complete cycles on CD, many highly distinguished, such as those from Colin Davis, (LSO Live - Jack Lawson and see also John Quinn's review and another impending and contrasting one from Dominy Clements), Neeme Järvi (DG Trio), Rozhdestvensky and Bryden Thomson (both Chandos). Earlier today, I heard Building a Library on BBC Radio 3, where Andrew Mellor discussed recordings of the Sinfonia Espansiva, coming up with the decision that Myung-Whun Chung’s BIS CD from his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra set was his favourite. Alan Gilbert has just completed his cycle with the New York Philharmonic on the Danish Dacapo label (Symphonies 1 & 4; Symphonies 2 & 3; Symphonies 5 & 6).

So is there room for yet another contender, especially as it is one more from the Chandos stable? The answer, for me at any rate, is a resounding ‘Yes’, with Finnish maestro John Storgårds once more leading the BBC Philharmonic in following up their fine Sibelius complete symphonies of a year or so back (Chandos CHAN10809(3)). He gives alert, dramatic and brilliantly detailed performances of all six of these great works, characterising them sharply, and bringing out their stunning originality, their deliberate waywardness - or cussedness, if you like - as well as their composer’s captivating sense of humour. Incidentally, I mentioned BBC Building a Library above, and I should say that it was pointed out that Storgård’s recording of the Espansiva arrived too late to be considered in that choice, but that the complete cycle would be featured in CD Review on 13 June 2015.

Storgårds has the capacity to draw the best out of the BBC Philharmonic. It has always been a superb orchestra; during the 1970s and 1980s they were Manchester’s best, given that the Hallé was going through its difficult post-Barbirolli years. Many people, myself included, would say that they can be - again at their best - even finer than the London-based BBC Symphony Orchestra. Fine margins; but listen to these discs and you will hear playing of the very highest quality from every section, as well as a beautifully integrated tutti sound when needed. The Chandos engineers have captured all this perfectly; you can’t afford any artificial balancing in Nielsen, for it must above all sound natural, allowing the instruments to establish internal relationships one with another.

For me, the first two symphonies were a revelation, as they are the ones I knew least well. Yes, the First is a work that has its roots firmly in the 19th century tradition, but its stormy opening projects the composer’s personality strongly, with an impetuosity and a certain impatience to ‘get on with it’ that we find also at the start of the next three symphonies. The Andante has a Beethovenian inwardness, and gives a clear taste of the beauty of the Philharmonic’s string tone, as well as some fine woodwind contributions. Storgårds, all the way through the cycle, insists on a very wide dynamic range, from almost inaudible pianissimo to crashing fortissimo; this is done for all the absolutely right musical reasons, but could make it a challenge to set your volume control at the right level.

That impetuosity I mentioned is of course felt powerfully in the first movement of Symphony no.2, subtitled The Four Temperaments. The marking is Allegro collerico, and the music expresses anger, passion and fire in equal measure. Those who met this composer always describe him as a mild-mannered, gently spoken man; yet clearly there was tremendous anger raging within, for it breaks into his music constantly, not just here where it is ‘nominated’.

The Allegro comodo e flemmatico perfectly expresses ‘phlegmatic’ calm, while the middle section brings to the fore an important Nielsen fingerprint, namely the use of repeated notes, usually marked staccato. These threaten to disturb the tranquillity, but are rapidly dismissed. Not so the melancholy of the beautiful and uneasy third movement, where Storgårds once more calls forth wonderfully rich sounds from his strings. The intensity of this brings to mind, for me, the music of Nielsen’s contemporaries Albéric Magnard or even (stretching the dates a bit) Samuel Barber. It’s a fine movement, but creates a problem in that the ‘sanguine’ finale does feel a bit like a dog that’s been cooped up for too long being let loose in the wide open spaces. Nielsen’s inventiveness, and the brilliance of the playing here, won me over, but it’s not perhaps the composer’s greatest moment.

With CD 2, we arrive at the works on which Nielsen’s reputation truly rests; we have here the Espansiva and the Inextinguishable, both works of stunning power and inventiveness. We are told that Nielsen himself, when rehearsing the opening of Symphony no.3 for the first time, quailed somewhat at all those explosive repeated notes but what an opening. Unlike some composers who manage gripping openings which they can’t quite follow up, Nielsen is up to the challenge, writing a first movement that is indeed expansive, but emotionally very complex. I found Storgårds here absolutely superb, balancing detail and the great sweep of the structure ideally well.

However, there is a drawback to this performance, and it comes in the second movement. This is where Nielsen had the poetic idea of two wordless voices, male and female, that emerge towards the end of the movement. It’s a wonderful concept, and potentially magical, but also fraught with dangers and problems. The voices need to sound effortless and natural, not at all stagey or grandly expressive; Storgård’s baritone, Mark Stone – though a singer I admire greatly – simply overdoes it, with fulsome operatic tone. Such a pity, because it’s a key moment in the symphony. In fairness, I can’t say I’ve come across a recording yet that gets it just right, in terms of the timbre of the voices and their placing in relation to the orchestra.

The third movement of the Espansiva picks up the rather despondent mood with which the Andante finishes, after that vision of pastoral beauty has faded. Wonderful phrasing from the Philharmonic’s principal oboe, and great contrast between this and the irascible music that immediately interrupts it. This is one of Nielsen’s most equivocal and fascinating movements, alternating between swaying dance themes and questing fugato passages that must have made Shostakovich sit up and think — you’ll see what I mean if you listen to track 3, 3:52 to about 4:25. The ending, with its eddying flute solo slowly settling, brings us back to exactly where we were at the end of the second movement; little emotional progress, despite all the hard work.

This is what makes Nielsen such a very great symphonist; he presents a problem, then explores different ‘solutions’, eventually finding one that can carry all before it. His ultimate reference point could be said to be the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, where themes of previous movements are paraded and systematically rejected before the arrival of the Joy theme.

Nielsen’s solution arrives in the shape of the magnificent muscular theme of the fourth movement, which propels the symphony to its resounding conclusion. Once more, I was struck by Storgård’s avoidance of exaggerating or distorting the music; here I find him superior, or preferable, to Myung-Whun Chung, who overplays it rather sensationally; very exciting, but for me OTT.

It might seem a long way from the affirmation of that finale to the wrath and chaos that often engulfs the listener in the first movement of the Inextinguishable, Symphony no.4. It is not really that far; anger and frustration are present in all of the first three movements of the Espansiva, and they become the subject matter of this next symphony, rather than its subtext. There is humour too, in the way the spectral end of the Allegro is replaced calmly by a Mozartian wind serenade at the outset of the poco allegretto. That insouciant music is itself soon summarily ousted by the great lament of the strings, punctuated by the hammer-strokes of the timpani, that announce the beginning of the poco adagio third movement.

All of this is characterised with mesmerising intensity by these musicians; Storgårds allows the tension in the poco adagio to grow imperceptibly, until it becomes almost unbearable, bursting out at last in the hectic finale. The high-point here is the famous ‘battle of the timpani’, in which, for maximum impact, the composer wanted the two players and their drums placed as near the audience as possible. I always cherish the great Robert Simpson’s comment on this: “Conductors seem unwilling to risk this, fearing perhaps an incontinent flight from the stalls’. Nicely put. Storgård’s timpanists — named in the CD notes, along with various other key instrumentalists, a welcome touch — have a rare old punch-up. I love that they are using really hard sticks, which gives huge benefit not only in terms of physical impact, but of clarity too.

The intrusion of a percussion instrument, seemingly intent on malevolent disruption, also plays a vital role in the first movement of the next symphony, no.5, which is probably nowadays Nielsen’s most often performed work. It is cast in two large movements, both sub-divided into a number of contrasting sections. Unlike the first four symphonies, it begins softly, with a two-note ostinato in the violas, against which the bassoons give out an unquiet, fragmented theme. Beautifully shaped by the players, with Storgårds at the quick end of the tempo spectrum here. This pays dividends, because this opening section can seem very long drawn-out until things begin to hot up with the arrival of the militaristic side-drum a few minutes in. As in the finale of the Fourth, the climax arrives with a pitch battle, this time between the side-drum and the rest of the orchestra. Nielsen, in his score, instructs the drummer to ‘try to stop the course of the music’. It is even more dramatic, one of the most gripping pieces of purely musical theatre in the whole of symphonic literature. It is thrilling here, though with one important reservation; as the crescendo builds towards the conflict, all the strings repeatedly play fortissimo a terse phrase of demi-semiquavers which has been initiated by the woodwind. This must be heard - but alas in this recording disappears far too soon in the general clamour.

Once the finale gets underway, there is, for quite a lot of the time, very little a conductor can do but beat time as accurately and firmly as possible — believe me, I’ve tried it — so busy and intricate is the string figuration that continues throughout the much of the movement. At first I thought Storgårds’ tempo just a little too slow to provide the necessary urgency but it pays off in the end, again in terms of clarity and momentum.

Another fascinating study is Nielsen’s use of fugue in the symphonies; indeed, he can be given credit for having revived its importance in symphonic discourse. There are two wonderful fugues in this finale; the first a scary “witches’ Sabbath”, which eventually disappears up its own broomstick handle; the second a very beautiful slowly unfolding passage, at first for strings alone, but gradually drawing in the whole orchestra. There is a palpable sense here of the music turning inwards to discover truth, and it paves the way for an affirmative but never complacent coda. It’s always a near-surprise when the end comes – a sudden realisation that we are home and dry. Storgårds steers the music rather than driving it, and the effect is powerfully satisfying.

So to the unique Sinfonia Semplice, the sixth and final symphony. I mentioned Shostakovich earlier on, and I have always felt a kinship between the two composers’ final symphonies. David Fanning points out in his excellent booklet notes, Shostakovich was composing his first symphony while Nielsen was writing this final one. Not only does each symphony open with tinkling percussion, but both first movements have that unsettling character of games which go wrong, sinister elements creeping in and spoiling the party. I found this the finest performance in the set, for Storgårds is equally successful in the humorous and the dark music, finding the perfect tempo to bind the movement together.

The middle movements are equally remarkable; a deeply sarcastic scherzo which the composer said was to some extent a critique of ‘modern music’. Great fun, with the muted trombone glissandi hilariously rude. Then follows the ‘Serious Proposition’ (proposta seria) of the slow third movement; an uneasy, and at times agonised outpouring, that ends in an emotionally neutral tone, suggesting that the worst may be behind us. The finale opens with a lively introduction, leading to the theme that becomes the subject of nine terrific variations, first presented by the solo unaccompanied bassoon. Storgårds and his players characterise these variations with brilliant sharpness - the waltz of Variation 6 is pure delight, and there’s even a duet for xylophone and tuba. It all ends with one of the best rude jokes in music – what a piece.

I had a wonderful time listening to these superb performances, and felt the deepest admiration for conductor and orchestra. This may not be very helpful, but I have to say I would find it quite impossible to ‘rank’ it, to place it above such and such a set, and below another. This music is so complex, so very extraordinary that one could never achieve sincere agreement on the ‘best’ set from the many fine ones now available. All I can say is that this one is a major contender, and does full justice to this magnificent symphonist.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

And a contrasting view ...

Not bad, three new – and complete – symphony cycles to celebrate Carl Nielsen’s 150th birthday. First past the post was Alan Gilbert with the New York Philharmonic (Dacapo), followed by Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm PO on BIS. Now we have a brand-new set from John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic. I’ve assessed both the Gilbert and Oramo traversals, which I’ve listed and added links to at the end of this review. A quick search will show there are alternative views from the likes of John Quinn and Jack Lawson; although our opinions differ, sometimes quite markedly, we are as one in our passion for these great symphonies.

On the face of it Storgårds’ Nielsen may look less glamorous than that of his two rivals here, but I was quite impressed by his live performances broadcast on the BBC's Afternoon on 3 in February 2015. Besides, the BBC Phil are one of the corporation’s most versatile and consistent orchestras, and I’m always pleased to hear them. Their Arnold symphonies and overtures with Rumon Gamba are splendid (review), as is their Casella series with Gianandrea Noseda (review). As for Storgårds, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, I first heard him in Kalevi Aho’s vast and very ambitious Symphony No. 12 ‘Luosto’. Since then I’ve also sampled his Madetoja, which struck me as decent but not terribly competitive, and - in passing - his Sibelius.

Of his two main competitors in the Nielsen symphonies Alan Gilbert is the conductor with the highest profile; he’s also the most hyped, and that creates very high expectations which can’t always be met. So it proves; I admired the first instalment in his cycle – Nos. 2 and 3 – but the subsequent ones were very disappointing. Incidentally, if you want to see just how much reviewers can differ here’s Jack Lawson’s response to Gilbert’s Nielsen 5 and 6, which I liked least of all (review).

As for Sakari Oramo I foolishly dismissed his initial foray – Nos. 4 and 5 – as ‘dispiriting’, adding that these performances didn’t augur well for the rest of his cycle. I couldn’t have been more wrong, for while that first shot missed the target the following ones hit the bull’s eye every time. To paraphrase a comment in one of Mr Lawson’s other reviews I’d say Oramo’s Nielsen 2 and 6 are now the finest in the catalogue – period. That goes for the sound as well, which is among the best I’ve heard from BIS. I’m less enamoured of Dacapo’s much-vaunted DXD-sourced recordings which, although exciting at first, soon came to seem rather synthetic, particularly in the matter of recorded balances.

Chandos took Storgårds’ Nielsen into the studio soon after a series of live performances between 2012 and 2015. Logistically that makes a lot of sense; apart from that the works would be fresh in the minds of both conductor and orchestra. The first movement of Symphony No. 1 certainly has plenty of sinew, although the soundstage isn’t as wide or as deep as that of Oramo’s First. As a reading it’s quite well structured, with little evidence of the sudden interventions that mar Gilbert’s account. Storgårds is very incisive though – unnervingly so at times – and his dark-toned reading gives the music’s tougher, more brooding character. Also, the sound is bottom heavy and rather impenetrable, which drains the piece of essential energy.

The second movement isn’t as revealing as Oramo’s, but then the Chandos team just don't find much depth or telling detail here. No, there's far more light and shade to the music than this recording would have you believe. Alas, it only gets worse. The third movement is rough and peremptory, with garbled rhythms and relentless tuttis. As for the finale it has all the finesse of a battering ram. The live performance isn't much better, but at least the concert hall delivers a vital, engaging sound that you simply don't get from MediaCity. I did wonder if Chandos would have achieved more flattering results in the now demolished Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, the venue for many of the BBC Phil's finest recordings.

I know I’ve got form when it comes to snap judgments, but I’ll say it anyway; this really doesn’t augur well for the rest of the cycle. At least Symphony No. 2 has some of the sparkle that’s missing from Storgårds’ First. The recording is a bit more congenial too, with the strings breaking through the fug at last. Even more welcome is the fact that the music has more personality, which is especially appropriate in this context. That said, Storgårds is still too forceful for my tastes – his steroid-enhanced timps are very off-putting – and that tends to obscure Nielsen’s more attractive tunes and timbres. Once again the live performance benefits from a more open and spacious recording.

As its subtitle implies Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3 requires a breadth, a sense of light and air, that Storgårds does manage to convey in the concert hall. That doesn't come across in the studio, where Storgårds seems to have an even tighter grip on the reins. Don’t get me wrong, I like a strong, incisive performance, but I find this one much too hard driven. I do wish Storgårds would loosen up a bit, especially as he has a good team of horses between the shafts. His ill-blended singers are a tad stretched, too. Of the three conductors under consideration here, Oramo strikes the best balance between firmness and pliancy. He also creates a compelling narrative, something that Storgårds hints at in the concert hall but fails to pull off in the studio.

I’ve heard some listeners describe Nielsen as ‘difficult’, and if these were the first recordings they encountered I’d sympathise. This music is tough and elemental, but it also brims with character; it has plenty of colour and rhythmic contrast, too. Other conductors manage to find all or most of these things, but you won’t hear much of them in this set. Indeed, listening to these perfromances back to back simply underlines that lack of variety and conductorial flair. Alas, the promise of Storgårds’ live Nielsen has not been fulfilled in the studio. Even then it would be idle to pretend that his readings rival those of, say, Schmidt, Schønwandt (2 and 3 ~ 4 and 5 ~ 1 and 6) and Saraste (1 and 2 ~ 5 and 6) when it comes to authority and insight.

After all that the prospect of Symphony No. 4, with its duelling timps, filled me with dread. Also, does the first note of this performance catch the engineers off-guard? At least Storgårds finds a degree of stoicism in the concert hall that eludes him here; indeed, he seems almost cursory this time around. Given that these recorded performances tend to be so unyielding – at least they come across that way – this Fourth is surprisingly flaccid at times. There should be more tension, notably in that edgy third movement, but without well-defined contraries there’s no sense of progression. And what of that much-anticipated battle? A skirmish, merely. Now that is a surprise, given this conductor's propensity for dramatic overload.

Recently I had cause to celebrate a Chandos recording of Korngold’s Lieder des Abschieds and Symphony with Ted Downes and the BBC Phil (review). Dating from 1992 this gem – recorded in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House – has all the glow and presence that I associate with the best of this label’s output. I hear much less of that now, which is a great shame. In fact this Nielsen set sounds unremittingly hard and dry; that could be down to the MediaCity acoustic, the recording itself, or a combination of the two. It also puzzles me that Chandos didn’t issue this on SACD. they’ve certainly done so with their other high-profile releases; Ed Gardner’s Janáček (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), Andrew Davis’s Ives and Neeme Järvi’s Atterberg come to mind.

Storgårds’ live account of Symphony No. 5 has a degree of warmth and spontaneity that I simply cannot detect in this recording. The BBC Philharmonic winds, so appealing in the concert hall, just don’t have a chance in the studio. Storgårds is altogether less congenial than before, and he doesn’t build this symphony as implacably as his illustrious predecessors do. Yes, there are some arresting moments in the second movement, but the performance soon modulates back to the key of dour. Once again the recording doesn't do the performers any favours. No, you will need to look to Schmidt, Schønwandt and the volatile Bernstein to get the full measure of this extraordinary work.

Nielsen’s quirky, even bipolar, Symphony No. 6 is one of the hardest to bring off. As I’ve indicated Oramo does a splendid job of reconciling its dichotomies and welding them into a powerfully convincing whole. Comparing his first movement with Storgårds’ puts the latter’s entire recorded cycle in perspective; where one is keenly felt the other is blunted, and where one has a clear sense of purpose the other never gets past the preamble. Also, that darkly obsessive waltz and those martial irruptions count for precious little here. Oramo? He makes this music leap off the page and give you a good drubbing; the BIS recording is truly spectacular.

During the course of this review I was also able to compare these Nielsen performances with those being given by Storgårds and the BBC Phil at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. In general they seem more secure in terms of style and purpose, and the Radio 3 engineers bring out the music's inner voices very well indeed. There are still some misjudgments though; for instance, No. 6 is more appealing and eventful this time around, but I'm not sure these qualities are the right ones in this context. Despite interleaving these symphonies with Mahler songs the sparse applause suggests the hall was half empty most nights. Then again concertgoers may have sussed that Storgårds' Nielsen is still a work in progress.

Returning to this Chandos set I feel the unsympathetic sound is even more of a drawback than Storgårds' uneven performances. As if that weren’t bad enough Chandos's download site, theclassicalshop.net, is very temperamental at the moment. It took me more than an hour to get these files into my basket; then, as the zip function failed repeatedly I had to download all 26 tracks individually. The only bright spot in this whole enterprise is David Fanning’s very full and erudite liner-notes.

Storgårds' Nielsen falls well short of the best; the sound is below par, too.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei

Alan Gilbert (Dacapo)
Symphonies 1 & 4
Symphonies 2 & 3
Symphonies 5 & 6

Sakari Oramo (BIS)
Symphonies 1 & 3
Symphonies 2 & 6
Symphonies 4 & 5

 

 


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