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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Four: so-so. Five: hello!, 17 Jan 2011
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This review is from: Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 (LSO/Davis) (Audio CD)
Let me start by saying that, as mentioned already in one or two comments to this recording, the old proverb about old dogs and new tricks is found wanting once again. At the tender age of 83 Sir Colin Davis has taken on a Herculian task performing and recording the six symphonies by Carl Nielsen for the first time, and, so far, he has acquitted himself with dignity - though honour may still be in the offing.

A Dane myself I have about thirty years' experience with these works performed by conductors of many nationalities. Up until Bernstein's legendary performance of the "Espansiva"-symphony in connection with his accepting the Sonning Award of 1965, Nielsen's symphonies were almost exclusively the playing ground of Danish conductors; not so anymore. Especially the popular third and fourth symphonies have by now found their ways to the furthest corners of the globe, and very deservedly so.

The fourth symphony is not an easily accessible work. Originally an ardent nationalist Nielsen finished the composition during the last throes of WWI, and the music clearly reflects his horror at the increasingly barbaric excesses of soldiers on both sides. He later likened nationalism to "syphilis of the brain", a condition that, though often acquired under happy circumstances, leads to a combination of megalomania and gradual general paralysis - so perhaps not an altogether inappropriate comparison. As for Sir Colin's approach I can't say I'm entirely happy. The fourth IS an aggressive and abrasive affair and a certain amount of brutality is, indisputably, in its place; it is not supposed to carry the day, though. What particularly bugs me is a combination of - to my taste - excessively fast tempi and a certain lack of attention to detail, deficiencies I'm sure Sir Colin will, no doubt, remedy - given another decade of rumination, or two. For a version that is at the same time searing and wise, look to that Swedish/American/Swedish powerhouse of romantic passion Herbert Blomstedt. Or if you like your Nielsen in the "director's cut", go for the fine Dacapo-recording made by Michael Schønwandt back in 2000 - for that extra "fourth" dimension.

The fifth symphony is still centered on "the evil, that men do", to put it in literary terms. From the first bars of muted strings (so reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven's ninth), we follow the development of man through a state of primordial innocence to ... something that remains a mystery to most, but which could be a world of greater - if not peace then possibly - clarity. As in reality (and as in the fourth symphony) evil is, however, always present, but where the fourth presented it as a hissing feline asserting its dominance of the back-yard, the evil of the fifth is much more faceted, in places velvety - almost seductive, in places mocking (as in the snare drum's insistent intrusion at the end of the first movement), in places dropping the mask completely, exposing the naked wrath of (in)humanity. Here Sir Colin's huge experience with conflicting emotions in music comes to his aid, presenting the listener with a veritable tour de force of exhausting intensity that is also a deep emotional statement. The LSO too has a field day, playing as if their MBE's depended on it, leaving inspiration and musicality to blend and ferment resulting in a singularly potent brew. This is a recording worthy of comparison to the greatest - Horenstein, Bernstein, Blomstedt. Got it in one, Sir Colin; full marks and no holds barred.

The sound of the recordings is a bit dry - as usual for the LSO label - but otherwise most satisfying with fine, full-bodied reproduction of the huge orchestra.

To quote a reviewer for the French music magazine Diapason (of many years ago): this is a disc you might like to cut in two. Only, it doesn't play very well that way. I look forward to the next disc of this series - and I'm particularly excited to see if it will take after daddy (symphony no.4) or mommy (symphony no.5). Issue expected in 2012.

... and a gentle word to my co-reviewer J.S.Bower, just to set the record straight: It's all swell that you have a weakness for the "naive simplicity and intense Danish folk character and flavour" - though I can't say I particularly recognize that description from my everyday life. However, that just simply isn't what "The Inextinguishable" (4th) symphony is about, so if you don't find it in this recording - so much the better. That you don't necessarily have to rummage around indoors on horseback, as Sir Colin Davis tends to do a bit, is another matter altogether.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 27 Jan 2011 08:39:30 GMT
J. S. Bower says:
Steen Hi

You misrepresent me here. I was not suggesting that Denmark circa 2010 (and, by extension, your everyday life) was exactly overflowing with wide-eyed innocence. However, in the era this symphony was written, and in the context of Nielsen's simple and rough-hewn background and self-taught skills - well, why not? This naivity clearly features, moreover, in all his symphonies.

I absolutely stick to my guns regarding the performance. Light and shade is necessary in any good symphonic reading - and these don't have it. Listen to the cited recordings to hear what's missing!



In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jan 2011 16:20:12 GMT
Last edited by the author on 28 Jan 2011 17:56:31 GMT
Steen Mencke says:
Hi John

As I mentioned in our earlier conversation, which seems to have been deleted for some reason (censorship?), I am not at all disputing your right to feel about this interpretation as you do, nor will I dispute that your ears tell you what they appearantly do about the quality of the recording. All I say is - both are essentially matters of taste; many people don't see things your way, and your views should not be presented as indisputable, gospel truth (especially when it comes to sound quality), as I feel is, more or less, where we so brutally landed yesterday.

But when it comes to what the music is about deep down, there is, in fact, very little to discuss. It is described fairly unambiguously in letters by Nielsen, and gone into very thoroughly in several Danish dissertations, as I also mentioned yesterday. Yes, Nielsen was a country lad who started his career as a shepherd (and later bugler and fiddler in a military unit), and yes, that can probably be heard by an ear, propperly attuned, in all his music. These two symphonies, however, are probably the worst places to look for this; they are dramatic - desperate even, some might say - denunciations of the violent and corruptible nature of man, and looking for bucolic simplicity here is about as relevant as trying to find it in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov". I think many of the "early" (Danish) interpreters of Nielsen's symphonies (Jensen, Tuxen, Grøndahl, etc.) underestimated the revolutionary contents of this music (Nielsen was then percieved by many as primarily a composer of popular songs, and hence my remarks of yesterday re. the purist/fundamentalist in looking in that direction); and, by the way, I know these recordings very well but frankly feel, for the reasons I mention, that they have been trumped on several occations since.

As mentioned in my review, I have my reservations about Sir Colin Davis' reading of the fourth, which comes over as a bit too roughtly hewn and a tad sloppy (is the live conditions perhaps to blame?) here and there, but - given that one looks for the elements I mention - I still think the fifth is nailed, pretty much.

I am not a nationalist, but I still balk when I sense the works of THE national Danish composer, as I think Nielsen has to be labeled (N.W.Gade never made it further than to becomming a pale afterglow of Mendelssohn, and the rest of the candidates you could mention were essentially German - in spirit, if nothing else), passed off as a musical barn yard fable, as still happens all too often. This is not by a long shot where you are (seem to be) going, I'm sure. I still think, though, that the pastoral naivety you miss in this recording simply isn't supposed to be there. In the third symphony, maybe, and in some of the shorter orchestral works - not here.

Another famous Dane, H. C. Andersen, world renowned for his fairy tales and often depicted with a child in his lap, was once asked how he felt about children. His answer was: "De går mig så frygteligt i skrævet", which can be loosely translated as: "They tend to get in my crotch something awful." He was not a great fan of children; he chose - in a time where you had to be very careful not to get in the face of people considered beyond reproach (royalty, politicians, public celebreties) - to express himself in an innocent manner. Likewise, Nielsen chose to compose in an easily accessible form, but his music was anything but simple. In fact it is absolutely characteristic that Nielsen chose to name his last, most complex and dissonant symphony, "Sinfonia Semplice" - the simple symphony.

That is what I wanted to say all along, and I appreciate - as I'm sure you do - that the rhetoric has been turned down a notch. Imagine, such passion in an artistic dispute!


In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jan 2011 17:18:03 GMT
Last edited by the author on 28 Jan 2011 17:19:19 GMT
J. S. Bower says:
Steen Hi

Thanks. Well, if it didn't matter to us, we would be posting here, would we? But I'm glad we can keep things civil.

Yes, it's odd that the previous dialogue appears to have disappeared - and I've seen much worse on, say, regarding matters such as these...!

Matters of taste on performance are just that - subjective; you obviously like the performances more than I do. That's cool and totally in order. But I do confirm that I also thought Davis's 5th better than his 4th. And the latter was definitely a bit rough and ready at times. So we agree on those aspects, at least!

Seriously, though, coming back to the sound. On high-end SACD it clearly lacks any air and is too up-front, as well as a bit ragged and bass-light. Focus and dimensionality is also poor. These are, regretfully, defining characteristics of this label, although they do have the problem of working in an already nasty, dry and up-front hall. But good recordings have come from here (eg the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony on Chandos) so it CAN be done. You just need to throw away most of the mikes they used and move them further into the hall. But that's another debate altogether...

Thanks for the stimulating debate!



In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jan 2011 18:07:09 GMT
Steen Mencke says:
Hi again Jon,

I also liked - and wrote so in my review - the sound of the VW "Sea Symphony" better, and in that question I defer (technically, at least) to your expertise. Maybe LSO could up the ante a bit.

I made a small addition to my comment of earlier - nothing that will upset you, though, I think :-) Have a look.

Thanks to you too for a frank (at times painfully so) exchange of opinions.


In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jan 2011 09:32:12 GMT
J. S. Bower says:
Steen Hi

No problems! Yes, LSO live need to improve their SQ - there are some fine conductors like Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink delivering fine performances with a fine orchestra - but these are marred by the label's generic house sound in the horrid Barbican. Sorry to bang on - but SACD brutally reveals these problems.

And here is an interesting fact. The VW 1 - which has blatantly better SQ, was engineered by Jonathan Stokes of Classic sound - who is also responsible for many LSO Live productions!

In live performances, it is common practice to move mikes closer to minimise audience noise. But I think there must be more going on here, because the VW was live, too! So Jonathan can do it - maybe he was following label practice; Chandos recordings tend to use less mikes, more distantly placed, and sound all the better for it.

In any case, personally, I'd gladly exchange a bit more audience for some more air and space in the recording. But that's just me.



In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jan 2011 11:40:20 GMT
Steen Mencke says:
Hi Jon

Sad to say I don't possess the equipment necessary to play SACD; I take it that could, to a considerable degree, account for our difference in opinion about the quality of the sound. Given you obvious insight, I certainly take your word for it that the SACD reproduction leaves something to be desired. The ordinary sound track is also not glorious, but still less deficient than you describe the sound of the SACD.

I just remembered the anecdote about H. C. Andersen and thought it fit the case of Nielsen's symphonies rather well - triavia as it is, of course.


In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jan 2011 12:34:47 GMT
J. S. Bower says:
Steen Hi

Regarding sound quality, the old adage certainly applies:

'The wider you open the window, the more the (metabolic end product) flies in'

Of course, when there's fresh air outside, you get more of that too.

I tried posting originally this with () replaced with the obvious expletive, but it wouldn't let me post it. Picky... they obviously have a (crud) detector.


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