Nielsen immersive. Enlightening to journey through Carl Nielsen’s six superb Symphonies (1894-1925) in close proximity, each distinctive and different from one another, several masterpieces, especially the final three.
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra is steeped in Nielsen’s music and Fabio Luisi is a sympathetic and individual interpreter of it, beginning with the romantic urges of Symphony No.1, Nielsen respecting the four-movement format if filling the space with diverse ideas, developments and harmonies. Luisi’s flexible, yielding and evocative approach makes much of this debut Symphony, at once traditional in shape yet suggestive of a composer already doing things his way who would go on to be utterly unique, sequentially with the ‘Four Temperaments’ Second Symphony’s characterisations – different personality-traits portrayed in symphonic form – brought off by Luisi with emotional fire, languor, eloquent sentiment and carefree swagger.
Luisi lets the first movement of ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ off the leash from the off, it really swings into action, and what a foil the second movement is – idyllic, insular, if stressed – featuring wordless soprano and baritone (Fatma Said and Palle Knudsen), distant enough, as required, but a little more so would have been beneficial; and, following a bristling third movement, Luisi’s ‘expansive’ approach to the Finale, although going against how conductors contemporary to Nielsen himself paced the movement, is a glorious rounding off. The ‘Inextinguishable’ Fourth is urgent, danger and conflict lurking (it’s a WWI work, Luisi uncompromising with intensity and incident), which, despite the respite of the second movement (very expressive woodwinds within the DNSO ranks), will eventually come to a head with battling timpanists, positioned stereophonically, but Life itself has the last word.
Symphony Five – strange landscape; a lone side-drummer trying to wreak havoc; fugal ingenuity – finds Nielsen going further, a two-movement design of variety (yet gelling across the whole), imaginative use of percussion, and a sense of bizarre theatre being enacted, which here is vibrantly presented, although the percussionist could have done more to halt the orchestra’s progress (which can be heard as human endeavour), and the second movement’s rhythms are driven with purpose, the galumphing fugue similarly until it reaches a wasteland that then boils to a blazing culmination. Whether with ‘Sinfonia semplice’, which is anything but simple, Nielsen was seeking to join the modernists, or was lampooning them, can be wondered at. As enigmatic as Shostakovich Fifteen, even opening with similar chimes, in No.6 Nielsen asks questions and sets conundrums through music (like the Shostakovich) that is endlessly fascinating, anomalous yet alluring, with perhaps the second movement praising or pillorying Varèse (if Nielsen knew any of his music), a third that maybe mocks seriousness or is mock-serious, and ends with a set of Variations embracing a lopsided waltz, including Ives-like clashes, and concluding with a skewwhiff fanfare (Nielsen exiting stage left) and a rude gesture from a bassoon. Great, great music! This DNSO/Luisi rendition totally plays into Nielsen’s hands, whatever his intentions. There’s tragedy therein though.
Excellent performances all through – the only issue perhaps being the recorded sound (DR Koncerthuset, Copenhagen; 2019 & 2022: either side of Covid) – a ‘loud’ transfer that coarsens fortissimos in a rather reverberant acoustic, the orchestra sometimes slightly backwards within it, although detail is consistently vivid and tangible, if best to tweak the volume downwards for better results – Luisi joining such as Herbert Blomstedt, Colin Davis, Paavo Järvi, Sakari Oramo, and others, as eminent explainers of these wonderful scores. DG 486 3471 (3 CDs).
As far as cycles of Nielsen’s symphonies go the more the merrier if new releases such as here extend interest in a major symphonic force post Brahms.