[See also Separate review of the Bostock
Two new Nielsen Symphonies cycles are launched with these two albums. Both
recordings have Nielsen's Second Symphony in common allowing an ideal opportunity
to compare the very different approaches of the two conductors.
Symphony No.2 (The Four Temperaments) - both conductors readings
The contrasting approaches of these two performances are thrown into relief
by the clear programmatic content of Nielsen's 'Four Temperaments' Symphony.
The story behind the inspiration of the work is well known: that of a caricature
picture, divided into four sections. Each of these represent the four
temperaments; four very different human characteristics depicted and the
portraits titled accordingly: 'The Choleric'; 'The Sanguine'; 'The Melancholic';
and 'The Phlegmatic.' Nielsen was so taken with this picture that he composed
a symphony around the four temperaments; but his characters are more rounded,
more human for they display other traits, to a lesser extent, as well as
their basic characteristics.
The opening movement is 'The Choleric', depicted on horseback eyes flaring
and fiercely wielding a long sword. Both conductors give this movement plenty
of spleen with Bostock particularly vitriolic; he pushes forward much faster.
Schønwandt is a shade more leisurely allowing the character to be
more roundly drawn and, for a moment, we sense he has a more human, considerate
side. The playing of the Danish orchestra has extra polish and the recorded
sound is better engineered allowing a greater transparency of texture so
that all the little felicities of detail can be heard. The second movement
is definitely with the Danes. Bostock's 'The Phlegmatic' merely sounds lugubrious
giving only a one-dimensional study of what the booklet notes' author myopically
thinks is just an apathetic character. Schønwandt's reading again
has more depth, a deeper understanding of the intent of this movement, for,
as the author of that booklet notes observes, Nielsen had a certain
young man in mind who was very laid back and very popular but who just let
the world go by. His nonchalance and his basically good nature are nicely
caught in this much more sympathetic reading.
Some might think that Schønwandt dwells rather overlong in dark places
for his sound portrait of 'The Melancholy' for here is pain and angst aplenty
while Bostock does allow the poor, sad fellow a few welcome lighter moments.
Interestingly, Bostock uses Nielsen's preferred special kind of sordino for
the timpani in this movement. Nielsen explained - "sordino here means a small
fan-shaped brush of fine birch twigs, which is laid on the edge of the kettledrum
spread over the skin, this produces a slight rustling sound." An interesting
effect but I would warn that it requires attentive listening, with the volume
raised slightly (not too much or the neighbours will complain about the tuttis)
or it could be easily missed. Finally, both conductors give rousing, bravado
accounts of 'The Sanguine' (or the cheerful and credulous yet confident)
with Bostock really racing away but it is Schønwandt who is more
convincing, more powerful and who gives a more commanding portrait of this
imposing figure - yet allowing him a hint of vulnerability too. The martial-like
ending is thrilling too, on this dacapo recording which has to be my preferred
Symphony No. 3 (Sinfonia Espansiva) conducted by Schønwandt
Nielsen composed his 'Four Temperaments' Symphony in 1901/02 but it was not
for another eight years before he returned to the demanding symphonic genre.
His Symphony No. 3 (Sinfonia espansiva). It was premiered in Copenhagen on
28th February 1912, together with his Violin Concerto, composed
in 1911 immediately after the Third Symphony. The concert was a great success
and it marked Nielsen's final breakthrough, and it won critical acclaim.
One reviewer said of this Symphony that everybody, Nielsen's friends and
opponents - "had to rejoice in this work, which was genuinely Carl Nielsenesque
in all its strange mixture of naiveté and refinement, humour and lyricism,
violence and grace
" Nielsen, himself, wrote the programme notes for
this Symphony and I quote from his writings for a concert performance, in
1931, below -.
The opening of this symphony is probably one of the most dramatic and memorable
in the whole symphonic repertoire and Schønwandt grasps every opportunity.
His reading is urgent, crisp and thrusting and he propels this movement strongly
forward through all its contrasting moods so that it sounds persuasively
cohesive. Nielsen said of it, "The first movement was meant as a gust of
energy and life-affirmation blown out into the wide world, which we human
beings would not only like to get to know in all its multiplicity of activities,
but also to conquer to make our own.' Schønwandt clearly understands,
and interprets these sentiments. The kaleidoscopic movement with its fresh,
open-air quality and robust humour is very well evoked. (One is tempted to
imagine, in parts, wide expanses of flat Danish coastline and the big skies
that Nielsen knew and loved, simple everyday rural scenes and the struggles
of those that work the land together with more relaxed village dance and
fairground celebrations). Schønwandt's reading has great rhythmic
flexibility and drive and the wide perspectives, courtesy of the decapo sound
engineers, exposes many interesting little details and nuances.
The second movement, which Nielsen describes as "
the purest idyll,
and when the human voices are heard at last, it is only to underscore the
peaceful mood that one could imagine in Paradise before the Fall of our First
Parents, Adam and Eve." Indeed Schønwandt's paradise is idyllic with
the hymn-like string melodies, first in mid then upper registers, are beautifully
articulated. The entry of tenor and soprano ppp is nicely contrived
too and their attractively timbred voices are well distanced and blend together
and with the orchestra very well. I wonder if the ominous horn calls towards
the close of this movement presage The Fall? Nielsen described his third
movement as "
a thing that cannot really be described, because both
evil and good are manifested without any real settling of the issue." The
music is, unsurprisingly, enigmatic but spirited and colourful. The finale
according to Nielsen "
is perfectly straightforward: a hymn to work
and the healthy activity of everyday life, but a certain expansive happiness
about being able to participate in the work of life and the day and to see
activity and ability manifested on all sides around us." Schønwandt,
accordingly gives us a warm affectionate reading full of the simple dignity
of every day living. The music is much like that of the opening movement
and the Danish players respond with great enthusiasm working up to a most
glorious final peroration.
Symphony No. 5 conducted by Douglas Bostock
The interesting point about Bostock's recording is that it claims to follow
the pattern set by the new and complete musicological yet performance-orientated
edition of Carl Nielsen's music that was commenced in 1994. The changes affecting
the Symphony No. 2 were relatively minor compared to those of the Fifth Symphony
so that the perception of this performance can be somewhat different from
those which have previously been familiar. Apparently, Emil Telmányi
and the conductor Erik Tuxen had not only corrected obvious mistakes, they
had also made revisions to the instrumentation, dynamics and articulation.
Thus, this new recording is claimed to be the first one in recording history
of the original score without errors and additions.
By the time he reached his Fifth Symphony, Nielsen realised that the
'straightjacket' imposed by the form of the standard four movement symphony
was inhibiting his creativity. He therefore opted for a two-section symphony
divided into approximately equal lengths. The opening section, however, has
a definite division between Tempo giusto and Adagio non troppo. The second
section, which covers a lot of varied ground, is marked Allegro/Presto/Andante
un poco tranquillo/Allegro (tempo I).
Bostock commences with a most atmospheric opening before the entrance of
those distinctive snare drum, timpani and triangle figures that give this
movement so much character and impetus. What an extraordinary sound world
this is with its unusual string passages sometimes chirping or chiming, sometimes
whirling; and those peculiar woodwind motifs. Bostock creates a contrasting
ethereal beauty in the early part of the Adagio with its intriguing,
tantalisingly obtuse use of a mix of quasi-fugal and canonic material. The
serene mood is rudely shattered with the extreme violence of the war-like
second section which leads to a huge heroic peroration before the music subsides
back to something of serenity with the lovely clarinet solo that closes the
movement. [All due credit should be given to Nicholas Cox (clarinet) and
to Graham Johns (side drum.)] Bostock maintains his energetic forward propulsion
through his most persuasive second section commencing with whirlwind opening
pages. Once more he nicely contrasts the ethereal with the violent. [Nielsen
although not assigning a programme to this symphony had written the motto
"Dark sleeping forces/Awakened forces" but later retracted this 'revelation'].
Nevertheless, Bostock seems to have taken Nielsen at his original word for
through much of this movement Bostock creates a nightmarish landscape populated
by the most grotesque figures, giving the impression that the hounds of hell
have been unleashed.
All in all an impressive start for both these new Nielsen Symphonies cycles.
I look forward to hearing the next instalments with keen anticipation.
Ratings: Performance -