May 31, 2023

Nielsen: The Symphonies (CD Review)

by Ryan Ross


Danish National Symphony Orchestra; Fabio Luisi, conductor. Deutsche Grammophon 486 3471 (3 CDs)


I had high hopes for this one. Being someone who believes that concert programming, and classical music history as it’s normally relayed, are too much in thrall to Late Romantic (especially German) aesthetics, I see renewed focus on composers like Carl Nielsen as a viable way out of the morass. His highly individual, appealing music is a breath of fresh air. It emphasizes rigor, energy, optimism, and (as musicologist Daniel Grimley puts it) life-affirmation. I keep hoping we’ll more fully admit Nielsen into the classical canon as the great symphonist he was, and that our current Mahler/Bruckner/etc. obsessions will subside enough to allow this. So yes, I was thrilled to see Fabio Luisi’s and the DNSO’s new recorded cycle appear on perhaps classical music’s most prestigious label. This had to be a wonderful tool for the cause, right?

Not so much. Oh, the DNSO’s playing is good, and the sound quality is fine. It’s Luisi’s vision of Nielsen’s music that makes the venture objectionable. To be blunt: he doesn’t feel it. He’s a relative newcomer to this repertoire – someone who’s used to conducting music we’re already well used to hearing. Well, these symphonies in his hands sound too much like music we’re already well used to hearing. The result is not just mostly poor Nielsen, but also a weary accompanying realization that Mahler and Bruckner have indeed seemed to permeate everywhere, ostensibly even performances of scores by the Great Dane. 

The biggest problem here is Luisi’s lack of energy. We’ll discuss two instances for the sake of example. In the score of the Second Symphony (subtitled “The Four Temperaments”), Nielsen clearly indicates a tempo marking of eighth equals 126 at the head of the opening movement. Luisi, however, comes in at about 106 to 108. This would be weird in any case, but in a movement entitled “Allegro collerico” (indicating the “choleric” temperament), a slow pulse simply doesn’t get the job done. Luisi himself may not be of such a disposition, but he’s obligated to use the orchestra to do his best impression if he’s conducting this music. Has he met anyone who is choleric? Those folks typically don’t saunter. Maybe worse is the finale of the Fifth Symphony. Again, Luisi proceeds noticeably under the composer’s tempo marking, and in a setting where doing so similarly saps the music of its character. The whole movement is one of epic struggle; from the roiling outer sections, to the terrifying cataclysm of the first fugue, to even the slower “rebirth” presented by the second fugue, this music requires spark and momentum. Instead, the dominant impression is one of lethargy. It comes across like somebody trying to run a marathon immediately after scoffing a huge plate of spaghetti. 

Related to tempo problems are Luisi’s dynamics and phrase shaping. They’re just too steeped in late Romanticism. Nielsen’s music at times shares something with Romanticism, but there is a rather stronger Classical streak present that greatly leavens this overlap and clashes with Luisi’s apparent instincts. A good example is how he conceives the finale of the Third Symphony, subtitled “Espansiva.” Evidently Luisi takes this term to mean “expansive” as in imitating exaggerated Romantic climaxes. Instead of the open-air hymn to hard work and common rural experience (which would be consistent with Nielsen’s own remarks on this section), the tune and its supporting materials become just another Mahlerian lied, with gushy strings and overwrought arrivals. Combine these things with another slow tempo (I cannot imagine why this movement needs to clock in at 10:59!), and we’re quite far from the spirit of the work. Similar interpretive miscues hamper nearly every performance here, from the odd dynamic spasms (heard right away in the First Symphony), to poorly accentuated subject lines in fugal sections, to excessive disruptions of tempo. 

Probably the best performance in this cycle is of the Sixth and final symphony, named the Sinfonia semplice. Still the least understood work of a too-little-known composer, it is singular and delightfully strange. For these reasons, it’s probably the best symphony of the bunch to withstand the kind of interpretive “license” that the conductor inflicts upon its brethren. For once Luisi’s tempi and shaping are solid; the finale is appreciatively humorous. This is not the best performance of the Sixth available, but it will serve. Would that it could be issued on a singleton release. 

But on the whole these recordings present a missed opportunity. Even if they do become influential in spurring more performances of Nielsen’s music in the concert hall, will those performances sound like these? That’s a dispiriting train of thought. Thus motivated, I’ll lend my tiny voice to suggesting Herbert Blomstedt’s fine cycle with the San Francisco Symphony on the London label as a preferred alternative. (Schonwandt/DNSO, Salonen/SRSO, and Kuchar/JPO are all good, too.) In terms of isolated performances, Leonard Bernstein’s renderings of the Third and Fifth with the New York Philharmonic on Sony are stupendous. If you don’t know Nielsen’s symphonies, start there. Leave Luisi and Company to the collectors. 

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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 for 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.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa