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Nielsen symphonies 4256072
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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 1 (1892) [32.57]
Symphony No. 6 ‘Sinfonia Semplice’ (1925) [33.58]
San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. September 1988, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Presto CD
DECCA 425 607-2 [66:55]

An improvement on his EMI recordings with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (review), Herbert Blomstedt’s Decca San Francisco Symphony cycle of Nielsen’s symphonies became something of a gold standard, and the set still remains a strong choice amidst growing competition.

Nielsen’s First Symphony is a confident and distinctive statement by a composer still in his 20s, and Blomstedt gives it both the weight it deserves as well as infusing it with youthful energy and ardour. Tempi and proportions seem near ideal and the orchestra is on top form. Coupling the first of Nielsen’s symphonies with his last, the Sixth is intriguing but by no means inappropriate. The booklet notes sum this work up as “emotionally ambiguous and complex”, which is accurate, but the music itself is by no means ‘difficult’. We are perhaps bemused by Nielsen’s contrasts between knockabout humour and at times almost menacing drama, but this is defiance against approaching mortality and encroaching ill health - the composer cocking a snook at the face of death, while acknowledging the frustrations of frailty. Blomstedt is excellent here, with a good amount of edge to the crucial climaxes in this work. We do however have to accept that this recording is now well over 30 years old, and things have moved on a little.

Rob Barnett looked at Herbert Blomstedt’s Decca cycle of Nielsen symphonies back in 2004 when it was released as a box set (review), and the cycle has also appeared as a set of two Decca ‘twofers’. It’s good that Presto Classical has made this single-disc release more easily available, but it is worth shopping around. When it comes to bargain sets of Nielsen’s complete symphonies you should certainly consider the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ole Schmidt (review), and not only if you are just dipping your toes into this wonderful symphonic world. There are no weak points in this remarkable recording, and there are moments in the Fifth Symphony that remain unsurpassed to my ears. Pipping the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert on the DaCapo label (review and review), and if expense is of no consequence, then the best current recordings are on the BIS label with Sakari Oramo conducting (review of Symphony No. 1 and review of Symphony No. 6). Oramo benefits from state of the art SACD sound, but also manages to heighten the urgency and life-force in all of these works, and certainly eliminating those moments in which Blomstedt might be accused of being a touch leaden.

Dominy Clements

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