Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (CD review)

Michael Schonwandt, Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Dacapo Records 8.224156.

The late nineteenth, early twentieth-century Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) was unusually prolific. He not only wrote six symphonies, he did operas, concertos, chamber music, piano and organ music, and songs. American audiences probably know him best, though, for the two pieces represented on this disc, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Given, then, that the disc presents his most accessible material, that it's performed by a Danish conductor and orchestra, and that it's framed in excellent sound, it amounts to a good buy for listeners who don't already have favorite copies of these items.

The Fourth Symphony, known as "The Inextinguishable," is the more Romantic of the pair, the closer to Nature, and, because of its structure, somewhat the more unified. Nielsen wrote the symphony's four movements to flow into one another without interruption, something nicely observed in this recording. And, thanks to the clarity of the soundstage, the various bird calls and animal murmurings come across quite distinctly. Life, according to this music, is "inextinguishable," forever running onward in one great movement in its will to live. Nielsen premiered the Fourth Symphony on February 1, 1916.

Michael Schonwandt
It is the Fifth Symphony, however, that is the more provocative of the two works, thanks largely to its first movement snare drums. They tend to march onward to their own beat, perhaps like Nature moving inexorably forward as it had in the composer's Fourth Symphony. But the Fifth, after its quiet opening and increasingly insistent drums, opens up further after its first couple of movements into extremely active and vivacious third, fourth, and fifth movements, leading to a finale that is almost harsh by comparison to the composer's earlier work.

Maybe it is here that Dacapo's sometimes bright, forward sound is most helpful, not only in illuminating orchestral detail but in making a case for the composer's intentions in showing how Nature can unfold into pure energy. Whatever the case, Maestro Schonwandt and his Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra maintain a firm grip on the goings on and deliver some fine music making. While one could perhaps fault the conductor a bit for not entirely capturing the sheer rigorousness of Nielsen's scores, he produces a more than adequate if somewhat measured glimpse into Nielsen's visions of Nature.

Does Schonwandt's recording eclipse Herbert Blomstedt's more refined San Francisco account of this same coupling on Decca or Sakari Oramo's more vigorous Stockholm interpretation on BIS? I think not, but it's close.

Incidentally, I see what appears to be the same recording now issued by Naxos, so that, too, may be an alternative choice if the spirit moves you.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa