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NIELSEN: Symphonies Nos. 2, 'The Four Temperaments', No. 4 'The Inextinguishable   Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra Launy Grondahl Dutton Laboratories CDCLP 4001 69m ADD (Recorded 1947/1951) Amazon

Ireland National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrain Leaper Naxos  8.550743 Amazon  




Carl Nielsen is unique to music in his extremely concentrated view of symphonic thought. Although the first three symphonies contain nothing absolutely out of the ordinary, they still are creations of an astoundingly acute symphonic mind coupled with an innate humanity that continuously explores new contours and pastures. The tremendous rhythmic vitality of these symphonies is reflected as a climax in the last movement of the Espansiva (No. 3), where the resolution of tonal conflict is triumphant although very basic when compared to the later symphonies. The Second, The Four Temperaments is also interesting and varied, here the four character studies are brilliantly evocative, here Nielsen's humanity comes to the fore especially in the long and brooding Third Movement, Andante malincolico. After the Third, Nielsen felt he could not continue in the normal symphonic mode of four separate movements, although he experimented with the human voice in the second movement of the Espansiva. The Fourth marks a watershed in Nielsen's career, here the great composer was traversing a difficult life, personal problems were mingled with a profound feeling of grief and horror at the bloodbath of the First World War. Being a deeply sensitive man, Nielsen was profoundly affected by the wanton destruction and terrible waste of the Great War and his music now took on a markedly different shape.

The Fourth is subtitled Das Ukkesglude which roughly translated from the Danish means The Inextinguishable. The music that permeates the symphony is full of a wistful longing and occasionally the anger and power tend to lose all control. What is perfectly apparent is that the music will never be the same again, the themes are darker, full of passion and with a great depth of feeling. A constant battle of progressive tonality runs through the symphony, it is almost a quest of the spirit attempting to find repose in a troubled world. There are magical touches throughout, particularly in the tranquil Second Movement. Although the movements are recognisable, the music plays without a break, one long sweep of magnificent force occasionally threatening to sweep all before it in its intensity.

The Symphony begins with an angry ostinato motif on brass and strings that subsides slowly after a few bars. The main theme than is slowly stated on cellos and woodwind, when it is taken up slowly and majestically to swell to a climax of brazen triumph. This theme undergoes various developments and modifications with prominence given to the cellos and basses creating a dark and solemn atmosphere. Then a passage of great energy commences, here the strings dig with great ferocity into the music, staccato rhythms and fugues bring another majestic re-statement of the main theme. This then defragments itself into a desolate wasteland of solo cello and occasional flute calls. Out of this stark background, a wonderfully plaintive theme emerges from the woodwind, this is the Second Movement. Here the idyllic nature of the Danish countryside is recalled, a picture postcard of the farming community and a green landscape. This short movement is simply a variation on the theme but is still fascinating in its own right. Then suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, the shrieking sound of the cellos interrupts this genial background. This is the Third movement, where one is brought into direct contact with the horrors of war. The desolate nature of the music is thoroughly apparent, it is the solitary cry of unparalleled woe and pain. The strings continue to play in desolate mood, grasping onto new ideas and new fragments of themes to finally swell to an uncontrollable climax of massive power and regurgative energy. This point is the threshold of the symphony, a gigantic kernel of anger that is the key to the whole understanding of Carl Nielsen's temperament. The movement then dies away with plaintive fragmentary themes on the cellos and the strings. This short discourse then gives way to the majestic Finale which is launched with a flurry of activity. After some development several themes begin to take shape, all very mysterious and brooding in their content. A great traverse of activity is continuously apparent, there are passages that seem so desolate and woeful in their subject matter. Climax after climax begins to build and a volley of timpani begins to make itself heard. These timpani suddenly take control of the proceedings and begin to hurl terrifying and cataclysmic volleys at each other. Then another heroic theme appears on the brass and strings and carries the music forward to greater heights. The timpani return in earnest, but they are defeated by the return of the glorious opening theme which is the majestic summing up of the symphony. This theme is stated with glory and develops until the timpani have their final angry say. The work comes to an end with a blistering display of power and affirmation. The victory is there but it is not complete, it has been won at a great cost. In my own words:

From the desolate battlegrounds,
Strewn with littered corpses
A lonely flower sways in the wind
Life is inextinguishable.

A tremendous current of hope runs through this incomparable work. Truly it is a musical depiction of the struggles and tribulations of man. Another subject that is also recognisable is human love. Nielsen was a deep personality and he felt profoundly for every single person. A further development on this subject can be found in his own book 'My Childhood' published posthumously by Hutchison in 1953. The exploration of cyclic motifs is another important aspect of Nielsen's development as a symphonist. One has to remember that the theme that is constantly reappearing in different guises is a life giving affirmation that is so splendidly developed until it is almost unrecognizable. One must also analyse the Second Movement, 'Allegretto'. Although it may appear to be a slight interlude, the soft pizzicato strings are much more deep than one can imagine. And who could fail to ignore the majestic and resounding final statement of the symphony which literally describes life in a firm pronouncement of hard won glory.

This brings us to the ultimate question of this symphony, the question of life. The symphony literally teems with life in every way. A clarinet solo there, a double bass, a flute, several instruments are given their own spurious but by no means insignificant roles. If one is akin to fanciful imagination, one could bring himself to imagine several programmatic elements that are a useful guide throughout the work. The First Movement could be seen to contain the trials and tribulations of man with the bold opening motif representing the ultimate will of life. As the main theme emerges, this might indicate a person making the first bold steps into the world with expectancy and exhiliration. Struggles are now making their first appearances and the powerful music resembles violent changes of emotion in a troubled personality. Out of this melee of uncertainty and fear a sublime pastoral interlude depicts simplicity of love. The quaint setting is so peaceful, so ethereally beautiful that it occasionally beggars description. Perhaps there will be calm after the storm, who knows? Suddenly the stark strings dispel all thoughts of peace and the war rears its ugly head again. The painful nature of the music is wonderfully passionnate and heartfelt. The continous musical line grows with shrieking strings and dissonant woodwind that seem to depict a stark unadorned Nordic landscape permeated with horror and destruction much akin to Munch's work; 'The Scream'. Here I like to imagine a desolate being lost in a wartime landscape, shell shocked and numb with fear. As the music slows quietly, this person is sobbing and feeling intense pain. The Finale now commences and it is definite that a great struggle will take place. Having vowed to come back from the depths of despair, our hero is faced with terifying challenges depicted by huge masses of sound, especially conveyed in the percusssion instruments. The repeated duels grow in mass anger but a sense of redemption is also there with some brooding string writing depicting a wandering soul. Finally the sun breaks forth from the clouds, the victory is complete and the hero has conquered. But the victory is not won without cost, the battle goes on, it goes on for there is never a pause. There will be other times when pain will return but however the flame is inextinguishable. The elemental will of life drives us on.

Recommended recordings:

The first records of 'The Inextinguishable' appeared after the Second World War and both are recommendable as the finest ever. The orchestra was the legendary Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra trained by Fritz Busch and Egisto Tango into an ensemble of world class renown and with a passion for Nielsen's music like no other. Launy Grondahl's studio recording for EMI (1951) suffers from some dryish sound but the inspiration, vigour and ultimate triumph of the interpretation is second-to-none. This is now available on Dutton Laboratories (CDCLP4001) coupled with Thomas Jensen's magnificent premiere recording of 'The Four Temperaments'. The same conductor's live performance from a 1952 Denmark Radio concert is also unmissable, a truly incandescent performance of harrowing power and nerve wracking high voltage. The Finale in particular is incredibly fast, adding to the thrill and spontaneity of the piece. This is available on a three-disc Danacord set, preserving other great performances of the symphonies. After those two exemplary homegrown versions, we had to wait another twenty years for a decent version of the Fourth and that also emanated from Denmark in the shape of Herbert Blomstedt's complete set of the symphonies also with the DRSO. Another EMI recording, recorded rather boxily but still eminently level headed with a beautifully shaped Third Movement. Blomstedt followed that version with an awesome Decca recording with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the mid-Eighties and that still holds pride of place for shattering sonics and a war torn Finale of epic proportions. A personal favourite of mine is Adrian Leaper's 1994 recording with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland for Naxos, this version is beautifully shaped, excellently recorded and is the perfect introduction to the symphony, for so it was to me! Critics of the likes of Robert Layton also praise Myung Wung Chung (BIS), Ole Schmidt (Unicorn - dryish recording) and Thomson (Chandos) although I feel that they do not move me in the way other versions listed above do. Ultimately I would plump for Grondahl as the top recommendation with Leaper as a fine digital alternative. Whatever version you possess, Nielsen's Fourth is a towering edifice of grandeur and one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth century.


Gerald Fenech


Gerald Fenech

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