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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 3, Op. 27 ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ (1910-1911) [36:43]
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, ‘The Inextinguishable’ (1914-1916) [34:07]
Estelí Gomez (soprano), John Taylor Ward (baritone)
Seattle Symphony/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. live, 8, 9 & 10 June 2017 (3) and 12 & 14 November 2015 (4), Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included

Nielsen’s 150th birthday celebrations spawned three complete symphony cycles, from Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic (Dacapo), John Storgårds and the BBC Phil (Chandos) and the Royal Stockholm PO under Sakari Oramo (BIS). I wrote off the first in the latter’s series, which couples Nos. 4 and 5, only to find the follow-ups were simply magnificent. And while Gilbert’s readings are not without merit, it was much harder to be positive about Storgårds’. All three face competition from stalwarts Ole Schmidt (Regis /Musical Concepts), Jukka Pekka Saraste (Warner, Finlandia), Michael Schønwandt (Dacapo/Naxos) and Herbert Blomstedt (EMI-Warner, Decca).

I’ve reviewed a number of Seattle Symphony releases, the earlier ones with Gerard Schwarz on Naxos, and, most recently, those with Ludovic Morlot (on the orchestra’s own label). These SSM performances have ranged from run-of-the-mill Saint-Saēns and variable Stravinsky to catalogue-topping Ives. And while Morlot’s eclectic programmes are certainly challenging – he rejoices in the soubriquet ‘Sir Mixalot’ – they don’t always work. It must have been fun to start with, but I did wonder when the novelty would wear off. As it happens, Morlot is stepping down as music director at the end of the 2018/19 season, and will be replaced by Thomas Dausgaard. The MD-in-waiting has already recorded a Deryck Cooke Mahler 10th with these players, an account much praised by Ralph Moore.

Dausgaard hasn’t given us much Nielsen, but his collection of orchestral excerpts (Dacapo 6.220518) and his C Major video of Espansiva – both with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra – have been well received. We never reviewed the first of these two releases, which I have on SACD and as a 24/96 download from eClassical (no booklet). Revisiting that album in preparation for this review, I soon realised why I hadn’t listened to it in years; the playing is robust and the recording is excellent, but the performances don’t engage me at all.

That doesn’t detract from Dausgaard’s ongoing commitment to the music of his homeland; the DNSO set of Rued Langgaard symphonies is invaluable (Dacapo).

Initial impressions of this Seattle Third are quite favourable. As I noticed in those excerpts, Dausgaard doesn’t dawdle, although, in fairness, he doesn’t overdrive the music either. His approach is Vesalian, the flesh flayed to reveal the muscle and bone beneath. Indeed, the combination of a no-nonsense reading and a very immediate recording reinforces that impression. And therein lies the rub: I have no problem with urgency and tautness, but I feel Dausgaard loses some of the work’s humanity in the process. That said, his singers are fine and I really like his balances, the lower strings particularly audible. Indeed, there’s something of the distinctive ‘terracing’ that makes Schmidt’s readings so tactile.

One need only turn to Oramo’s Third, coupled with a First of striking shape and temperament, to realise just how much Dausgaard misses here. There’s vigour, certainly, but there’s also insight, engagement, and, in the ‘meadow-haunting vocalise’, real loveliness. As I elaborated in my review: ‘Even the hint of a gathering storm à la Beethoven or Berlioz can’t dispel the music’s mood of contentment.’ In this instance at least, Dausgaard simply doesn’t convey that depth or contrast of feeling. Moreover, SSM’s engineering, although good, isn’t in the same class as BIS’s. Given such a raft of riches, it’s no wonder I made the latter release a Recording of the Month. It’s now my go-to version of both symphonies.

What of the Seattle Fourth? A troubled and troubling work – epitomised by those duelling timps – it’s been well served on disc. In light of Dausgaard’s forensic way with the Third, one might expect something rather special here. Alas, I just don’t sense the architecture of the piece – its span rather than its individual joists – and while that makes for moments of excitement I’m not convinced by the reading as a whole. Schønwandt and Saraste are much more consistent and compelling, with all the conflict and drama the music demands. Their orchestras – the DNSO and the Finnish Radio SO respectively - play with great passion, and both albums are well recorded.

Muscular performances that fall short of the best; ditto the sound.

Dan Morgan



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