NIELSEN: Symphony No. 1, Op. 7. Symphony
No. 2, Op. 16. Symphony No. 3, Op. 27. Symphony No. 4, Op.
29. Symphony No. 5, Op. 50. Symphony No. 6
It's been two years (tempus fugit!) that I reviewed Dacapo's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, issued stateside on a single disc, in the main favorably. That turns out to have been the first installment in the Danish Radio Orchestra's latest recording of Nielsen's six national treasures, composed between 1889 and 1925. Nos. 4 and 5 were recorded in October and November 1999 (early on, in other words, during the orchestra's 1999-2000 season). Nos. 2 and 3 predated them, however, in May and June at the end of the 1998-99 season, with Nos. 1 and 6 added between March 27 and July 31, 2000 - the year Michael Schønwandt became, in effect, Copenhagen's music director. The Royal Opera named him both Musical Director and Principal Conductor; the DSRO appointed him its Conductor.
Interestingly, Symphonies 1-5 were recorded within two-day periods, but the Sixth stretched from March 29 until July 31 - whether or not a movement at a time is moot. Listening to all six several times I find my reactions to Schønwandt's readings and the orchestra's playing basically unchanged in the cases of 4 and 5, and consistently similar otherwise. In between the first issue and this boxed set of the complete canon I replaced a trusty Rotel 965 CD-player with a fresh-off- the-line 1070 HDCD model - an upgrade that has proved to be agreeably startling. In 4 and 5 there is a new clarity of detail and a weight as well as richness of tone missing two years ago. I cannot speak for Decca's competitive versions recorded during Herbert Blomstedt's tenure in San Francisco, or to what extent these differ from his Danish Radio performances from the '70s, reissued in a pair of EMI midprice duopacks last year (review).
In all six, Schønwandt comes on strongly, yet all but No. 2 end without a significant rise in temperature - or perhaps I should say tension. There is a tendency to take slow passages slower than marked, although not disruptively so. Symphonies 1 and 2 are outstanding - Nielsen's line of descent from Brahms is evident without masking what is characterful in the Danish master's own musical personality. No. 3 is warm-hearted, with a finale that obeys the composer's Allegro (alla breve, in effect 2/2 time since he marked it half-note=76). Don't expect the electrifying but controversially personal Allegro molto that Leonard Bernstein sprang on the Danish in 1965, perpetuated in his CBS/Sony recording (made before the concert performance). Lenny was exciting - it was impossible not to join in a standing ovation - but the "traditional" way is more genial and idiomatic over the long pull. Schønwandt's wordless soloists in the slow movement are a match for any I know on discs. Oddly, though, No. 3 precedes rather than follows No. 2 here.
No. 6 (slyly subtitled Sinfonia semplice) has much to commend it here - especially attention to small details - but the transition from naivÈtÈ at the start to Nielsen's sardonic bewilderment at the direction music had taken after WW1, misses a measure of parody in the variation-finale that ends with a sustained note on the bassoon. The mood swings in this work have distanced it from audiences who want to be entertained, say, by GaïtÈ Parisienne, yet nearly eight decades later Sinfonia semplice remains ever-freshly fascinating, albeit elusive. That said, Schønwandt is a painstaking interpreter and uncommonly moving in the slow movement marked "Proposta seria," which follows a "Humoresque" that thumbs its nose, Petrushka-fashion, at Stravinsky.
Lacking the shelf space for another set of Nielsen symphonies, I'm reluctantly replacing Byrden Thomson on Chandos with this one, not least for the sonic achievement of Denmark's Radio production team in a wood-paneled concert hall of remarkable acoustic warmth.
R.D. (September 2002)