Carl Nielsen The Symphonies No 1 - 6 DG

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, FS 16 (Op 7) (1894)
Symphony No. 2 ‘The Four Temperaments’, FS 29 (Op 16) (1901-02)
Symphony No. 3 ‘Sinfonia espansiva’, FS 60 (Op 27) (1910-11)
Symphony No. 4 ‘The Inextinguishable’, FS 76 (Op 29) (1914-16)
Symphony No. 5 FS 97 (Op 50) (1920-22)
Symphony No. 6 ‘Sinfonia semplice’, FS 116 (1924-25)
Fatma Said (soprano); Palle Knudsen (baritone)
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Fabio Luisi
rec. 2019/22, Koncertsalen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Deutsche Grammophon 486 3471 [3 CDs: 217]

The Italian conductor, Fabio Luisi has been Chief Conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra since 2016; I understand he has recently extended his contract with them until 2029. It would appear that he values long term relationships: I read recently that he has also renewed his contract with Japan’s NHK Symphony Orchestra until 2028, by which time he will have completed six years in that post. Since 2020 he has been Music Director of the Dallas Symphony and his involvement there is presently scheduled to continue until 2029.

I don’t know if these Nielsen recordings were made live or under studio conditions. I strongly suspect that the recording process was disrupted by Covid restrictions. Symphonies Three and Five were set down in November 2019, but it was not until early 2022 that any more recordings were made: in January and February 2022, symphonies Two and Four were recorded; then in June 2022 the first and last of Nielsen’s symphonies were captured by the engineers.  I’ll consider the recordings in chronological order of composition.

When Nielsen completed his First Symphony, he was still plying his trade as a second violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra, a post he was able to give up in 1905 in order to compose full time. He may not have been a full-time composer at the time he wrote the G minor symphony but there was nothing diffident about the score. I love the phrase Jens Cornelius uses in his notes to describe this music: “Here one meets a strapping young man who expresses himself in short, powerful and physical phrases, almost as if out of breath”. Earlier, Cornelius has included a quote by Fabio Luisi, referencing Nielsen’s output in general; the conductor describes it as “lively, clear and immediate”. That description applies in spades to the opening movement of the First Symphony – and Luisi plays it as such. To the best of my knowledge, the tempo marking, Allegro orgoglioso, is unique. The Cambridge online Italian dictionary defines orgoglioso as ‘lordly, grand or proud’. Those related qualities come across in the present performance; though the lyrical episodes also get their due, the principal impression is one of great vigour. I was excited by Luisi’s bracing way with the music. 

When I first played the second movement I wondered if the tempo was a bit on the spacious side, given that the marking is Andante: in this performance the movement takes 7:53. But when I made some comparisons, I found that Luisi’s approach to tempo is broadly similar to that of Osmo Vänskä (review) and Sir Colin Davis (review). I also took the opportunity to contrast Luisi with a live 1957 performance led by Erik Tuxen (1902-1957). This is part of a set of historic performances of the symphonies issued some years ago by Danacord; this was warmly received by my colleague  Christoper Howell (review). Tuxen adopts a rather more flowing approach to tempo than any of the three conductors I’ve just mentioned – arguably more of a true Andante – and as a result his performance of the movement lasts for just 6:28. I mention this not to suggest that Luisi or his contemporary colleagues are “wrong” but rather because Tuxen and the other conductors whose work is featured in the Danacord set would have had first hand knowledge of Nielsen and his approach to his own music. Having mentioned this, I must hasten to say that I think the music flows persuasively in Luisi’s hands and it is very well played indeed. Apart from the slower episodes part way through and towards the end, Luisi’s account of the third movement is dynamic, just as it should be. The finale is marked Allegro con fuoco and, except in the more relaxed passages of music, Luisi and his players have the ‘con fuoco’ injunction very much in mind. The performance is full of vim and vigour and successfully gives the impression of the composer as a young man in a hurry. This traversal of the First Symphony launches Luisi’s cycle auspiciously.

As is well known, Nielsen took inspiration for his Second Symphony from a set of pictures he saw in a rural inn. These pictures amused him very much; they illustrated the four temperaments: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. There’s abundant energy in Luisi’s approach to the first movement and I like that very much. In particular I enjoyed the wildness he brings to the closing pages. Osmo Vänskä’s version is more fleet of foot: his performance plays for 8:42 compared with Luisi’s 10:12. I admire Vänskä’s performance but I like even more the combination of pace and just enough weight that Luisi brings to the music. The slow movement is marked Andante malincolico and there is a definite divergence of opinion as to what Nielsen meant by ‘Andante’. Luisi’s way with the music is weighty and deeply serious; the playing is very sonorous and climaxes are powerfully done. The clouds part around 4:40, but gradually the serious countenance is restored and from around 7:10 until nearly the end of the movement the music is deeply felt and strongly projected. Vänskä, whose performance plays for 13:01 seems to view the music similarly (Luisi’s version lasts 12:57.) On the other hand, Sir Colin Davis is rather more fleet of foot; his performance lasts for 9:54. I think there’s quite a case to be made that Davis’s tempo is properly ‘Andante’. On balance, though, I prefer the more spacious way with the music that Luisi and Vänskä take. Just as a point of reference, the aforementioned Danacord set includes a 1956 performance by Launy Grøndahl (1886-1960), another musician who would have had direct exposure to Nielsen; he brings the music in at 11:17. Annotator Jens Cornelius makes a delicious – and perceptive – comment about the finale: “the sanguine type gallops away but, being short-sighted, does not exactly know where the road leads”. Luisi brings out the wit and humour in Nielsen’s music but he’s also very good at making the most of the passages where the composer deviates from “the road”. I liked Fabio Luisi’s account of this symphony very much. 

By the time Nielsen came to write his third symphony, to which he gave the title ‘Sinfonia espansiva’, he had been a full-time composer for several years. The first movement begins with the utmost confidence; the music should have headlong impetus and that’s exactly what happens here. Luisi leads an extrovert, joyful performance. The playing of the Danish orchestra is full-bodied, as is the recorded sound. I found the reading of this movement to be exhilarating and I enjoyed it very much. The second movement is marked Andante pastorale and amongst the conductors to whom I’ve been listening there is, once again, an apparent divergence of view as to the meaning of ‘Andante’. As measured by the clock, Luisi is the broadest in approach; in his hands the music plays for 10:38. Vänskä takes 9:11 over the movement, but I think his conception is broadly similar to Luisi’s. At the other end of the scale is Colin Davis, who despatches the movement in just 7:26. Earlier in this review, I’ve defended Davis’s view of ‘Andante’ but I feel he’s too swift on this occasion. The music doesn’t quite expand and breathe as it does with Luisi, or with Vänskä for that matter. Rather in between, even if closer to Davis by the clock, is Thomas Jensen in the Danacord collection; he takes 8:39. Luisi may be the slowest if one relies solely on the rather crude measure of the clock, but in terms of the spirit of the music I can only say that he convinces me. At the start he unfolds a peaceful pastoral scene but later he responds acutely to the more animated nature of the music. From around 6:30 the music becomes radiant and shortly thereafter Nielsen plays his trump card, deploying a wordless pair of vocal soloists – Jens Cornelius makes a very apt comparison with Adam and Eve. Luisi’s soloists sing very well and they’re ideally balanced: the singers should not sound as if they are positioned at the front of the orchestra, as conventional soloists; rather, they are an additional element in the orchestral textures, and that’s what we experience here. I think Luisi’s account of this gorgeous slow movement is a conspicuous success. After the pithy third movement comes the glorious finale. The life-enhancing main theme bursts forth without any preamble; in this performance the melody is nobly sung whenever it appears. This is such a positive, affirmative finale; I’ve always loved this music and Luisi’s reading of it does Nielsen’s music full justice. Overall, this is a very impressive account of ‘Sinfonia espansiva’.

Composed between 1914 and 1916, Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony is inevitably coloured by the war which was then in progress. Though there is a good deal of ardent, intense music in the symphony, Nielsen commented that the work was, as Jens Cornelius expresses it, “an expression of the eternal will to life”. It has always seemed to me to be a work in which, despite the vicissitudes of life, the human spirit is indomitable; hence the title ‘The Inextinguishable’. The symphony opens explosively, as does this performance. Even in the passages where the music is at a lower dynamic level Luisi maintains the tension. The orchestra plays with great conviction and the performance as a whole is very exciting. In the little Poco allegretto movement which follows the Danish woodwind are simply captivating; they inflect the music marvellously. The string choir is to the fore in the third movement; the playing has great intensity at first until Nielsen establishes a more peaceful mood. That interlude, which Luisi ensures is very focused as well as peaceful, is disrupted by stabbing woodwind figures (5:51) which set the music off towards the movement’s climax. Luisi instils great urgency into the build-up to the climax which, when it arrives, is a genuine high point of the symphony. The finale is intensely dramatic; the orchestral playing is white-hot with conviction. The famous duel between the two sets of timpani is absolutely thrilling; the players are superb and the engineers capture their contributions vividly. At 6:42 the ‘Inextinguishable’ theme returns, sung out gloriously by the horn section. Luisi and his orchestra make the closing pages wonderfully affirmative; this is the triumph of the human spirit proudly expressed in music and it caps a marvellous performance of the symphony.

The World War cast a long shadow and in addition, as Jens Cornelius reminds us, Nielsen was much troubled by the breakdown of his marriage. From all these troubles emerged the Fifth Symphony which is, in Cornelius’s felicitous words, “a cosmic battle between light and darkness”. The work is cast in just two movements, although the first movement is divided into two clearly discernible sections. From the very start Fabio Luisi establishes palpable tension but I also discern a welcome degree of patience in his approach. The tempo indication is Tempo giusto; you may agree that this is not a great deal of help to a conductor but it seems to me that Luisi gets the pacing just right. At 4:32 a quick-ish march begins and I like the inexorable, purposeful tread: here is just one example of the excellent engineering; the pizzicato bass line is very clearly heard. An insolently flamboyant clarinet leads the piercing woodwind contributions; the unnamed player is terrific. This whole episode is projected with great bite and tension; it’s excitingly menacing. I really admire Luisi’s perceptive attention to detail in the spooky passage which acts as a bridge between the march and the start of the movement’s second section. In this second part, Adagio non troppo (from 10:32) Luisis pacing is again admirable; the playing of the strings and horns has noble warmth. In the previous section a naggingly insistent side drum impelled the march forward; now the drum returns, but with a different mission: the player is instructed to improvise ‘in his own tempo, as if he wanted at any price to interrupt the music’. In my experience, virtually no percussionist has ever matched the anarchic disruption attempted by Alfred Dukes in Jascha Horenstein’s 1969 recording with the New Philharmonia (Unicorn Kanchana UKCD2003). The sheer force of Dukes’ playing, rim-shots and all, is staggering; I can’t better the description by my late colleague Tony Duggan who likened it to “a berserk assault with rim-shots cracking off the sticks like bullets”. Presumably, Dukes had the conductor’s approval for playing in this fashion, though, interestingly, in a live performance a couple of years later, Horenstein’s drummer was more restrained (review). The only other player who, in my experience, has run Dukes close was Heather Corbett of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Osmo Vänskä’s recording (review). She displayed similar courage and imagination and made a terrific contribution as a result. Fabio Luisi’s drummer (who is uncredited) does very well but the playing lacks the explosive wildness of Dukes and Corbett. Nonetheless, Luisi’s account of the extended climax – like an imposing mountain peak – is mightily impressive and the rebellious side drum is seen off. I like, too, the way the tension gradually relaxes – though not completely – in the closing pages where the solo clarinet contribution is as soulful as one could wish for.

Luisi and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra give a very fine account of the second movement. The opening is full of thrust and energy; there’s a palpable sense of momentum. The sprightly first fugue (from 6:14) is played lightly and with great precision by the DNSO strings – and by other instruments as they join in. As more and more instruments become involved the rhythms grow wilder but Luisi maintains a disciplined grip on the proceedings.  The second, slower fugue is ghostly; in this performance I felt the playing had a Mahlerian intensity. When the opening music returns (13:31) it heralds a tremendous dash for the symphony’s finishing line. This is a highly impressive reading of the Fifth.

 I have to confess that I’ve never really ‘got’ Nielsen’s final symphony. He named it ‘Sinfonia semplice’ but I don’t think there’s much about it that is “simple”. I have to say, though, that this Luisi performance took me as close to ‘getting’ the work as I can remember. From pared-back essentials at the start, Nielsen builds the first movement in such a way that by mid-movement the textures and musical argument have become very intense. Luisi and the orchestra project the music vividly throughout. Though I’ve listened, for review purposes, to a number of complete cycles in the past I think this is the performance which has made me properly conscious of the lineage from the preceding symphonies through to the ‘Sinfonia semplice’. The second movement is entitled ‘Humoreske’ and during its course the strings are silent. The wind, brass and percussion players of the DNSO offer playing that is razor-sharp; that’s just what this quirky music demands. The brass glissandi are particularly important in creating the impression that the composer may be thumbing his nose. More than once I was put in mind of the acerbic humour that one often encounters in the symphonies of Shostakovich. The strings are to the fore in the ‘Proposta seria’ movement; here, the string playing is suitably intense, as are the woodwind contributions later on. I continue to find the ‘Tema med variationer’ finale a perplexing proposition. Much of the music is spiky and pithily humorous, characteristics which are expertly brought out in this performance. Luisi ensures that the music is vividly delivered, which is essential given the many changes of mood. For example, the way in which the Waltz variation descends almost into anarchy is boldly portrayed, but then the following Molto adagio variation is noble and eloquent. Nielsen packs these and many other mood swings into less than 12 minutes of music; no wonder I’m perplexed. That said, Fabio Luisi’s strongly characterised performance has helped me. I don’t think I’ll ever love Nielsen’s last symphony but a performance such as this one certainly makes me admire it.

I’ve greatly enjoyed and admired this cycle of the Nielsen symphonies. Fabio Luisi is a fine interpreter and he has the support of an excellent orchestra who have an undeniable affinity with the music. The cycle is consistent from start to finish and I believe it is a distinguished addition to the Nielsen discography. The recordings were produced by Bernhard Güttler and engineered by Mikkel Nymand. They’ve done an excellent job. The sound is detailed and has genuine presence as well as a very good dynamic range. In addition, the sound conveys a nice impression of the ambience of the hall. Jens Cornelius’s notes are very helpful.

John Quinn

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