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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 3 FS 60 Op. 27 “Sinfonia espansiva” (1910-11) [37:44]
Symphony No. 4 FS 76 Op. 29 “The Inextinguishable” (1914-16) [34:11]
Soile Isokowski, soprano, Jorma Hynninen, baritone
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Gothenburg, Konserthauset, 10/1990 (No.4), 8/1991 (No.3)
Presto Music CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 439 776-2 [71:55]

Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No.4 – also, of course, known as “The Inextinguishable” (Det Uudsdlukkelige) – is amongst his most striking and powerful symphonies. Its backdrop is the First World War but although written between 1914 and 1916 it isn’t a war symphony.

The Great War would harden many composers: The ferocity of Hindemith’s early 1920’s music is undeniably the work of a composer who experienced life in the trenches just as Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Symphony No.4 in E minor, written in 1918, shatters every hope of humanity in a work of gruesome power. It summons up Mahler’s Sixth and the austerity of Sibelius to converge into music that gives a graphic picture of Myaskovsky’s very real shellshock. The “Marsch” from Alban Berg’s Orchesterstücke op.6, written in 1914, is one of the primary overtures to the four years of slaughter and bloodshed which would follow it.

Nielsen’s Fourth sits somewhere between all of these works, and many other, although it is complicated by a much more personal tragedy for the composer which muddies its motives beyond the War itself. It has long been thought that the symphony perhaps greater reflects – if not completely in its substance – Nielsen’s marital issues with his wife, the sculptress Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen. Whatever crisis it was, it eventually survived the period during which Nielsen wrote the symphony. And whatever turbulence, struggles, conflicts and climaxes we hear in this symphony are likely to have a more nuanced reading. What we can also hear is the ‘inextinguishable’ faith in such elemental forces as music, art and the existential power of life itself. Not everything we hear in this work swells with the intensity of its conflicts; much of the music in this symphony is based on simple folk melodies, and its polyphony reflects this. A conductor would be rash to gloss over this.

Nevertheless, the symphony’s most striking feature – its clash of the timpanists, or duel (never read that for duet) – is what Nielsen told one of his former pupils is “something about war”. And it is this duel, in the final movement, which makes or breaks performances of this symphony – and there are many of the latter in the discography of this work. The symphony is, though, a bit of a pig. Not just amongst Nielsen’s – but amongst symphonies in general. Although written in four movements, it is really to be taken in a single movement. And timing. It is all about the timing.

I think one has to go back to the very earliest recordings to get any hint of what the tempo for this symphony might be. Tor Mann, who played the cello in the 7th November 1918 performance under Nielsen, took 35 minutes in his live concert from February 19th, 1947. Thomas Jensen, also a cello player, played a couple of times under Nielsen in the Tivoli Orchestra (he was also Nielsen’s pupil). Jensen’s claims to have had excellent recall of Nielsen’s tempos for each of the symphonies he conducted; on the other hand, Mann regarded Nielsen as a dreadful conductor, even of his own music, so he may be unreliable. Thomas Jensen’s September 2nd, 1952 performance, also live, is slightly brisker than Mann at [33:16].

Both of these historic performances are that – historic, and essential for any collection of this symphony. Neither is broken by a fateful duel; in fact, both are mightily epic, though I probably prefer Jensen’s for the sheer brilliance of it. If there is a problem with Jensen’s – and it entirely rests on tempo – it is that the volleying and firepower of it can make it sound a little one sided. But, thrilling almost doesn’t do it justice. Wind forward several decades, to Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, and he adds several minutes to the symphony, mainly to the first and third movements (we’re up to 39 minutes now, by the way). As beautifully played as this recording is, I’m not sure what Karajan is aiming for. Many orchestras can sound this powerful – although I don’t think the recording flatters either Karajan or the BPO these days. This is dogged rather than exciting – like muddy trench warfare – and begins to feel it by the time we get to a rather hesitant sounding duel which is epic for the wrong reasons. Normally we would have a live performance to contrast a Karajan studio one against; in the case of Nielsen’s symphonies we don’t.

As we get closer to Neeme Järvi’s Gothenburgers in the recording stakes, we have to pass through what are, I think, the two finest modern ones on disc. I had never been tempted by the octogenarian Colin Davis who takes the LSO (on LSD one sometimes wonders) on a high-speed rampage through this score and then loses focus – or just tires – at the end; I also think his unfamiliarity with this score just shines through at every possible opportunity. Eventually, it comes down to that great nonagenarian, although he wasn’t when he made his “Inextinguishable”, Herbert Blomstedt, and the San Francisco Symphony or, the real gem of the bunch, Alexander Gibson’s wild, frenetic and tumultuous studio recording from 1979 on Chandos with the Scottish National Orchestra.

Gibson and Jensen seem to have more than a passing similarity. Although not in every way identical, the 1952 Jensen has a Poco Adagio that is more spacious and is rather quicker in the fourth movement Allegro, but both conductors do bring in performances that are only seconds apart in their timing. Frankly, some of the SNO’s playing is so thrilling it borders on the savage; they outclass many bigger-named orchestras. More than 40 years has passed since the Gibson recording and I have still to hear a better modern recording of “The Inextinguishable”. It can be downloaded on Presto.

So, finally to Järvi on DG. Released back in 1993 and, I think, also a part of the complete Nielsen BIS cycle, this is one recording I had not really been that familiar with. It came and went from my shelves, but it is good to have it back. It hasn’t to my knowledge come and gone from the catalogue, however, so I am not sure why Presto CD have issued it unless it is to put it in the challenging single CD market – I am a sucker for DG’s original artwork, though.

Järvi’s opening is not that different from another recording on DG – Karajan’s. Both are in tempo, so much so you begin to wonder where Karajan gets lost in his thirteen-minute Allegro quagmire. Järvi isn’t inclined to fall into any traps when it comes to keeping this music moving; but nor is Karajan able to make the Berlin Philharmonic play quite to those wonderful dynamics that Järvi gets. Before the flute and bassoon exchanges in the first movement, Järvi seems much more attentive to phrasing, balance and shifts in the sound. An interesting distinction between Järvi and both Karajan and Gibson is in his treatment of the massive central section which builds up to the lyrical woodwind passage ([8:24] in the Järvi recording). Järvi seems to take the approach of both Jensen’s and Mann (if taking notice of neither of their tempi) while Gibson and Karajan treat the music as almost Brucknerian. I give the nod to Järvi here. Jensen’s and Tor take this passage at such a lick it is almost austere in comparison.

There is, I admit, something incredibly wonderful about Karajan’s Poco Adagio – but he does give himself almost three minutes longer than Järvi to get through it. I’m not sure it is Nielsen, however. Gibson is by a long distance the quickest here, even allowing for the incorrect movement break (30 seconds). Jensen, although he takes two minutes longer overall in this movement than Gibson – taking that icy dramatic opening with its shivering strings interrupted by a single drum so chillingly and uniquely – is in the same basic tempo. Järvi is closer to Tor Mann; Karajan in a class of his own – and perhaps that is ambiguous in its meaning – and you’ll either respond to this or you won’t. The attention to detail that Järvi gets is very special – for all Karajan’s lushness he just sounds too fluffy for me. I’m reminded with the Gothenburgers of that Nordic relativity to Shostakovich in their playing which adds just an extra tier of intensity here.

Jensens, Mann, Gibson, Järvi – and even Colin Davis – know exactly how to launch those opening bars of the fourth movement Allegro. I struggle with Karajan. The very first entry of the timpani (Järvi [1:13], Karajan [1:14], Gibson [1:11]) has Gibson outshining everyone by a country mile. The hesitancy of Karajan’s timpanist is at least not something I hear in Järvi – his Gothenburg player seems to know where he is going and it’s a blast of energy. It’s promising, of course, for the duel that is to come and so it is for Järvi and his two warriors. They enter proper at [5: 43], Gibson’s at [6:18] and Karajan’s at [6:09]. There is nothing fundamentally disappointing about what Järvi gives us. The playing is sharp; it doesn’t sound one-sided like the Jensen’s recording (but then neither is it quite that thrilling). Most listeners would be entirely happy with this. This is an ‘Inextinguishable” which is near the top of the pile but not quite edging into it.

Coupling this symphony with the ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ is common – although many people haven’t the foggiest idea what Nielsen meant by “espansiva”. It certainly has nothing to do with length; the symphony is no longer than ‘The Inextinguishable”. Robert Simpson suggested “espansiva” simply meant “the outward growth of the mind’s scope”.

My own view is that it falls somewhere between Simpson’s explanation and this symphony’s peculiar search for expansion within its rather short time span. It aims to be something other than a symphonic work – it’s Nielsen’s only vocal symphony – but it is also unusually tense as the music stretches within and beyond its movements into a kind of continuous curve; in other words, the music expands, rather like water does into ice.

There is a special kind of authenticity to Thomas Jensen’s June 1959 recording, even down to its native soloists. Tor Mann, in 1948, is just as impressive. Järvi is more expansive than either – at 37:44 this might be a little on the broad side for some people; for others it might not matter. Despite the weight of Järvi’s “Allegro espansiva”, which he clearly takes at Nielsen’s word, there is no lack of thrust here. The Gothenburgers sound like an engine – a very refined one too – building up with an even velocity and Järvi is careful to never take his foot of the pedal.

It’s surprising how little relaxation Järvi brings to the two middle movements; some of the playing in the wonderful Andante pastorale here is not just extremely beautiful it is intensely so. Soile Isokowski and Jorma Hynninen – singing that glorious wordless text – are both superb. This movement can be a challenge for conductors despite what is actually something rather simple. Järvi, probably with some help from the engineers, gives a very good sense of his singers coming from within the orchestra, if not entirely from the background. They do, however, blend with the orchestra to a very fine degree. Not all recordings manage this.

There is no perceivable introduction to this symphony’s final movement – as such its opening is straight into the hymn which will come to dominate the Allegro. The meaning that Nielsen gave to this music is that it was “about work, and the enjoyment of daily life”. Sometimes Järvi’s performance doesn’t always sound like this; though, mercifully, he doesn’t try to be a Karajan, who wisely avoided this symphony. Järvi sometimes gives the impression of sluggishness here and there, in an Allegro that doesn’t always hold its tempo. But it doesn’t mar what is a good, if not earth shattering, performance of this symphony.

Neither of these are recordings which, I think, challenge the handful of great ones, although Järvi’s ‘Inextinguishable’ does get close – and you’ll still need those historical ones in your collection come what may. The sound is first rate, but you can get that on Blomstedt (for both ‘The Inextinguishable’ and ‘Sinfonia espansiva’) and the wonderful Gibson on Chandos for an unrivalled ‘Inextinguishable’ in the modern era. The Trio CD set of Järvi’s complete cycle is now out of print (except as a download) so unless you want a physical disc this is now your only option – and an expensive one should you wish to invest in his whole cycle.

Marc Bridle

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