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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
The Complete Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 (1892) [33:59]
Symphony No. 2 Four Temperaments (1902) [33:39]
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Espansiva* (1911) [37:19]
Symphony No. 4 Inextinguishable (1916) [35:00]
Symphony No. 5 (1921) [37:03]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Semplice (1925) [33:16]
Camilla Tilling (soprano)*, Michael Nagy (baritone)*
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Friedrich-von-Thierisch-Saal, Kurhaus, Wiesbaden Germany, 8-10 July 2010 (No.1), Großer Saal, Alte Oper Frankfurt, Germany, 10-11 December 2009 (No.2), 23-25 September 2010 (No.3), 14-15 April 2011 (No.5), 8-9 December 2011 (No.6), 18-19 April 2013 (No.4)
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 88875178802 [3 CDs: 67:43 + 72:25 + 64:27]

About eighteen months ago I was party to a conversation between the manager of a major Scandinavian orchestra and an up-and-coming young German conductor fresh from a major concert success with the orchestra. The manager was hoping to book a return engagement and asked the conductor if he would consider programming a Nielsen Symphony. The conductor was distinctly unenthusiastic; in part because he did not know the works and mainly because they featured so little in the concert life of German orchestras. At the time this struck me as rather remarkable, but it is only with the arrival of this new set from Paavo Järvi and his excellent Frankfurt RSO that the reality of those comments hit home. On disc Nielsen has been lucky with consistently fine multiple cycles from Scandinavia, the UK and Ireland and the USA. There has even been a surprisingly fine set from the Ukraine. Apart from Karajan's early digital disc of No.4 and an Eastern bloc No.5 from Gunter Herbig I am struggling to think of any other Nielsen symphonies recorded in Germany or Austria let alone a complete cycle. Even Simon Rattle in Berlin has only managed to coax the two wind concertos out of the Philharmonic.

So setting aside any musical or technical interest this new set is something of real curiosity value before a note is heard. This is such glorious life-enhancing music that I find it mystifying that it can be so little known - apparently - in Germany. The good news is that this is a very fine set in every regard and there are several key moments when the classic characteristics of a German orchestral sound bring real value and insight. RCA have chosen to release this as a three disc set and a very competitively priced one at that. A quick online search finds copies for £14.00. This gives budget-conscious collectors a fillip in comparison to other recent Nielsen surveys; the Chandos three-disc set is a good £10.00 more and both the BIS/Oramo/Stockholm (1/3; 2/6; 4/5) and DaCapo/Gilbert/New York cycles have individual discs around the £12.00 mark. As it happens, I have heard none of those most recent sets; my comparisons are Schmidt/LSO, Berglund/Royal Danish SO (RCA-BMG), Blomstedt in Denmark and San Francisco, Bostock/Liverpool, Kuchar/Ukraine, Leaper/Ireland, Neeme Järvi and Chung/Gothenburg and Schønwandt/Danish RSO plus odds and ends by other conductors. Nielsen is a 'lucky' composer on disc. I enjoy all of those above cycles each of which has different virtues and strengths and none of which is poor. Given that the new BIS and DaCapo (1/4; 5/6; 2/3) cycles have enjoyed mainly positive reviews too - and are offered in SA-CD sound - Paavo Järvi is entering a crowded and competitive field. Since this is offered as a set of the symphonies I intend to review it as such rather than dwelling at length on individual works.

Impressions gained from the opening bars of Symphony No.1 prove to hold true for the entire set. This is immaculately clean and precise playing performed in a direct and unfussy manner. Järvi's unvarnished direct approach rather smoothes out the occasionally clumsy moments in this early work - which some might see as a virtue - but this comes at the expense of the sheer originality of a work straining to burst free of nineteenth century symphonic convention. This is a gawkier work than it sounds here, but the energy and verve of the music is very well presented.

Allied to that the RCA sound is very good. Perhaps the over-use of occasional solo spotlighting diminishes any illusion of a concert-hall experience but the overall quality of the engineering is very high. These seem to have been recorded in concert but only one ghostly cough in the first movement of No.6 betrayed an audience's presence - no applause is retained. Across his repertoire, Järvi seems to be developing a style of objective conducting. The pluses are a clear sense of structure and cohesion but at the price of some heart-on-sleeve emotion. Orchestral balances are carefully controlled - apart from a strangely prominent piccolo bursting through the texture in No.4's first movement. Absolute highlights of this set are the unanimity of the strings and the beauty of both the wind and brass choirs. Nielsen wrote some annoyingly tricky passages for massed strings. How tricky can be heard when the strings of the LSO circa 1974 struggle with them - in their defence, this first stereo cycle was recorded in a cold church in a very cold winter. In stark contrast to the scurrying complexities of some of the string writing Nielsen wrote 'intermezzo-like' passages for wind of touching simplicity. The Frankfurt wind's playing of the second movement Poco Allegretto in No.4 is simply the most beautiful performance of this movement I have ever heard - Järvi's unfussy but thoughtful approach paying the greatest dividends. The principal clarinet surpasses even this in No.5 at the end of the first movement. Over a hushed string chord they play a final lamenting solo with extraordinary poise and finesse.

The perfect blend and easy power of a German brass section should come as no surprise and again there are passages throughout all six works which benefit when heard afresh from such playing. The famous side drum/orchestral "battle" again in the first movement of No.5 or the chorale-like 'Inextinguishable' theme that crowns No.4 are good examples. Best of all to my ear is the Andante Malincolico third movement of No.2 'The Four Temperaments'. In a way I had never considered before, Järvi finds a near Brucknerian weight and intensity from the whole orchestra. Likewise, in the second movement Allegro comodo e flemmatico - played with an ideal lilt and lazy grace - is a pure delight. Järvi lets his mask of interpretative rectitude slip for a moment with a delicious first violin portamento up to a D harmonic around the 3:55 mark. Indeed the performance of this symphony is the jewel of the set. I would happily horse-trade performances of other symphonies from other cycles but this is the one that I would say makes this set worth hearing. Given that this is often considered one of the weaker works in the cycle this is a major achievement.

Accepting for the moment, as a given, the overall excellence on offer here - I seriously doubt anyone coming in isolation to the music could be disappointed - I have some minor caveats to add. In a curious way, the perfection of much of the playing runs against part of the essence of Nielsen. If in a crude and generalised way composers can be characterised as 'town' or 'country' artists then I would put Nielsen in the latter group. His music has a directness of intent, an earthy power, a lack of conscious sophistication that can benefit from an occasionally rough approach. Järvi prefers an urbanity and tight sense of control that I am not sure always serves the music to best effect. This is probably why I still turn to the gruff and tumble of Schmidt and the LSO. First love can be blind I accept, but there is an elemental power that Järvi does not seek. So for all the glory of the brass climaxes in Nos. 4 and 5 mentioned above neither have the cathartic release of Schmidt and his hard-pressed players. The battle mentioned is my one relative disappointment in the entire set. This is one of those places where conception and execution are quite different things. Nielsen sets up the idea of the individual - the side-drummer - battling against the many … or Fate or whatever. To this end the percussionist has to improvise a solo which tries to stem the implacable orchestral tide. Järvi's drummer is brilliant technically but I don't hear a struggle, likewise the beautiful orchestral playing led by the stunning brass simply play 'through' rather than fight with the solo player. So when the final wave of orchestral tone engulfs the beleaguered drummer it just 'happens' rather than being some kind of massive release of energy. No.3 features the incredibly beautiful Andante Pastorale second movement which includes two distant wordless vocalises for baritone and soprano. Järvi does this kind of dispassionate 'voice of nature' music very well - I love the perfect balance and blend of his trombones and the gently tolling horns. Perhaps the engineers could have distanced his soloists more. Leaper's engineers in Ireland to my ear judge this to perfection. The voices are so distanced that they blend into the orchestral texture rather than having a separate existence although Leaper's soprano is not as ideally pure-voiced as I would like.

I can do no better than to quote from an earlier review referring to Schmidt's No.3: "The Espansiva is given a superheated up-draught by Schmidt and by the LSO giving what sounds to be their all. The playing of the brass and percussion is edge-of-seat standard dicing with chaos and yet gripping the outer edge of control. This is music that sounds dangerous not tame." The key words for me here are 'dicing with chaos' and 'giving their all'. Järvi does not do 'dicing with chaos'. I have seen both Schmidt and Järvi conduct and where the former was all dishevelled intensity the latter is watch-maker precision. Schmidt's cycle was overseen for Unicorn by the great engineer Robert Auger and produced by Robert Simpson. They favoured a less sophisticated orchestral sound with prominent horns and percussion (Regis and more recently Alto ALC2505). Well balanced though this new Frankfurt cycle is I find the horns to be generally a fraction recessed even within the brass choir so the galumphing big-booted oom-pah-pahs of the joyous waltzes Nielsen writes in Nos. 3 and 6 are a relative disappointment. Another example of Järvi's measured approach is the second movement Humoreske of No.6. Again the clarity and precision of the wind playing is a joy. One of the quirks of Nielsen's writing here is the trombone who spends the movement 'yawning' in the background until a sudden ferocious ff glissando quite disrupts the polite conversation of the other wind players. Järvi tastefully incorporates this grotesque gesture into the wider musical picture. Schmidt encourages his player to blaze through the texture like a crazed dive-bomber; listener, the choice is yours. This nominally "Simple" symphony is an enigma and a minefield for players and conductors. The liner here quotes the composer as saying he wanted it to be "entirely idyllic" and a "waking to life". Järvi's strength is to make the work cohere much more than some versions which can sound disjointed and episodic. He pays the same price as elsewhere for this approach - moments of grand arrival are sacrificed for the bigger picture. So the very ending is bluff and good-humoured, again stunningly played but without the final wild sense of arrival of a Schmidt.

Aside from the side-drum battle of No.5, the wordless vocalises of No.3 and the quirks of No.6, Nielsen's most unusual use of the orchestra in this cycle are the antiphonal timpani in No.4. As is usual, the engineers place them stereophonically with the first player - who plays the bulk of the work of centre left and second, centre right. Throughout the entire cycle the timps are caught with clarity verging on prominence. This is certainly true in the present case and the furious exchange is brilliantly performed here. As an aside - it lacks the fury of Jean Martinon's rather testy and unsubtly recorded version in Chicago also from RCA - more jousting from Frankfurt than total war.

Prior to the recent glut of Nielsen cycles Blomstedt's second survey for Decca in San Francisco seems to have gained the most plaudits. It remains an impressive set but not one I often choose above others. Bostock on ClassicO offers fine orchestral playing, interesting couplings and textual alternatives but lacks the charisma of most of the other sets. Kuchar in Ukraine on Brilliant Classics surprised many by the sheer quality of the playing and interpretation and deserves to be heard by any Nielsen admirer. Likewise, Leaper's mid-1990s set on Naxos in Ireland (1/6: 8.550826; 2/3: 8.550825; 4/5: 8.550743 ) has been rather forgotten alongside nominally bigger names but in fact is very fine. As the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland proved with their Arnold symphony cycle they are no mean technicians and their slightly leaner sound suits other aspects of Nielsen. Schønwandt's cycle is also now available on Naxos (4/5; 1/6; 2/3) and is predictably good in a slightly safe way but is interesting in its original DaCapo guise as the set includes a cycle of the symphonies in different performances on DVD in concert (8.206002).

Presentation of the new set is minimalist - each disc present two symphonies in numbered order with no other couplings. The liner-note in English and German only is fairly brief but adequate. As mentioned, the engineering is very good and is only marred by the occasional piece of over-spotlighting. The through-strength of the set is the clarity and directness of Järvi's approach perfectly allied to the stunning playing of his Frankfurt orchestra. Indeed I would say that this is the best, most consistently brilliantly played cycle of these symphonies I have heard. I would like to think this will prompt other German orchestras - and indeed conductors - to programme these glorious works. In the past I have not been a great admirer of Järvi's work in comparison to others but this is very fine and proof of the continuing quality of the work he is doing in Germany.

A fine set, superbly played, intelligently conducted in good modern sound available at a bargain price. It makes for a tempting proposition.

Nick Barnard



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