NIELSEN:  Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, "The Inextinguishable."  Symphony No. 5, Op. 50.
Danish National Radio Symphony Orch/Michael Schönwandt, cond.
DA CAPO 8.224156  (F) (DDD) TT: 75:56

Nielsen's music has been neglected in American concert halls compared to Sibelius's (they were exact contemporaries), even though Sibelius publicly declared Nielsen to be the greater composer. But the Danes have produced a fairly steady stream of recordings for more than 50 years, of which this latest one is superbly played and recorded. I'm not always persuaded that Schønwandt is the most convincing  advocate of these symphonies, but at least he takes back the baton from such Auslanders as Salonen, Rozhdestvensky, J”rvi, Chung, Saraste, Blomstedt, Gould, Kubelik, and yes, even Bernstein (who never came close in Symphonies 2, 4 and 5 with the New York Phil to matching his electrifying Third, recorded in Denmark in 1965. I have a recollection -- but not corroboration; who can keep more than a couple of Schwanns without being a music library? -- of Kitaiyenko and even Segerstam. The only non-Danish Nielsen discs I've kept are the late Bryden Thomson's on Chandos of all six symphonies with the Scottish Nationalists, and a Third conducted by the composer's greatest post-'50s champion, Swedish Sixten Ehrling, with the Danish National Orchestra during a US tour (Audiophon; nla).

Luckily, I have Ehrling radio checks of Nos. 4 (Detroit, but with a power hum throughout), 5 (Chicago, but missing the first several measures), and 6 (Cleveland). Plus several sets of "historic" performances by Thomas Jensen, Eric Tuxen, and Launy Grøndahl, issued over the years by Da Capo, other Danish labels, and even British Decca. It was the last-named, in fact, that made Nielsen known outside of Scandinavia -- over here on the London label in the earliest years of LP, followed by Grøndahl's Fourth on RCA/HMV. But it was the Edinburgh Festival that internationalized the Danish National (a.k.a. Danish State Radio) Orchestra. Anyhow, that's when I developed an appetite that remains unslakable. I don't want to listen all the time, but the music is always at hand when the appetite craves it.

Nielsen called No. 4 "The Inextinguishable," a celebration of man's triumph over adversity (1914-16), with duelling timpanists in the finale on opposite sides of the stage.The Fifth, which postdated World War I (1920-22), is a darker piece altogether, with an anarchic side-drum in the first of two movements that threatens civilization. I heard Ozawa conduct a gripping performance with the Chicago Symphony in 1965, and a Kubelik performance that same summer in Tivoli Gardens that came close, although by the time he recorded it his approach had grown flaccid, made worse by debilitating illnesses. As for No. 4, maybe the best version since Grondahl's was Jean Martinon's for RCA in 1965, although it was the first use of Orchestra Hall after "renovation" had killed reverb. It's available, I'm told, on an RCA budget issue in Britain. Martinon may have been a puzzlement, but when he connected -- sometimes in unexpected repertory, i.e. Deryck Cooke's first version of the Mahler 10th -- he could hit home runs.

Schönwandt works regularly in provincial Germany rather than in Denmark, but the orchestra plays for him with discipline and panache. When he's conducting quick empi the result is invigorating, sometimes exciting. He tends, though, to slow down for lyrical themes, and to sweeten them excessively; thus timings are by and large slower than colleagues now dead. Nonetheless, I'll keep this coupling; it never exasperates and is frequently stirring. The orchestra and the sound are national treasures, idiomatic in the bargain, which is no small plus.

R.D. (July 2000)