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on 21 November 2015
good music
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on 17 January 2011
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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on 11 January 2011
Sorry, I find this a bit of a disappointment. Maybe, as a Nielsen-lover who has oft bemoaned the lack of the Danish master's symphonies on SACD, my expectations were just a bit too high?

If I were to sum this up in one line, it would go something like `decent performances, in typically one-dimensional LSO Live/Barbican sound.'

Live performances and listening in the home are - of course - very different experiences. Had I heard these readings live, I would probably have been more enthusiastic. For repeated home listening, and in the context of available alternative readings, however, they do not stack up so well.

Both these symphonies are explicit musical depictions of the struggle between good and evil or, if you prefer, the life force and war/destruction. They require great control and nuance to project both forces with equal vigour. It's relatively easy to get the dynamic and loud stuff to work, but conveying charm and simplicity in the same reading is much more elusive.

For me, these readings under-characterise these more tranquil moments. They tend to sound a bit rushed and perfunctory to my ears. Hear, for example II of the Inextinguishable (No 4). Where is its naïve simplicity and intense Danish folk character and flavour?

This lack of flexibility, light and shade in the readings of both symphonies prevents me from rating them higher. They sound like good symphonies in these performances. But they sound truly great when performed by Blomstedt (earlier set, with the Danish RSO) or Karajan (for No 4) or Horenstein (5).

I should note here that the playing (live) is marvellous throughout, but we wouldn't really expect otherwise from this fine orchestra.

Regretfully, sound quality is what we have come to expect from the LSO Live/Barbican paradigm. Clean, but dry, up-front and generally unappealing. In fact, the RBCD of the earlier complete Blomstedt cycle, in classic, golden-age EMI sound (and available for a snip) has more air, depth and staging than this. And, as noted above, its Inextinguishable is peerless.

If you must have your music on SACD, then there is no competition for No 4, and the only rival for No 5 is Paavo Jarvi on Telarc; this is a decent enough reading, but rather generic and transatlantic in feel, and dragged down by one of the limpest Stravinsky Rites in history hanging, albatross-like, on its flip side.

If you are prepared to listen to RBCD or vinyl, then there are simply more appealing alternatives out there.

(SACD stereo layer reviewed)
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on 20 January 2012
I love this recording. The LSO are completely unified in this interpretation of Nielsen's 4th and 5th Symphonies and the sound quality is incredible - especially when you listen to the SACD layer with surround sound speakers! Keep up the good work LSO!
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on 22 April 2011
I have many recording of this work but this is the best. Symphony no 4 is an fantastic creation...holds its own in the entire symphonic repertoire and in Nielsen's symphonic output.Anyone new to this work may not like it at first but with repeated listening will reward the listener more and more ...always remember what Nielsen was trying to write about.Erik Sharp
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on 30 January 2011
I looked forward to Sir Colin's foray into Nielsen territority with great anticipation. After all, for many years he's been widely acknowledged as one of the very best Sibelians of his generation.

I went to The Barbican and heard these two performances "live". While there's not a lot wrong with the LSO's playing, the Barbican sound as recorded is not ideal: it's clear enough, not particularly warm, and lacks expansiveness. I'd say it's better to have been there for the concerts than hear the CD.

The performances I found rather effortful and rather too "interpreted", almost as if Sir Colin was a bit too determined to get his points across, rather than just letting the players play and the music flow and evolve. I enjoyed both performances, but they're both some way short of the best ones available on disc. Blomstedt (Decca) is a very sure guide and is well recorded. Schonwandt (now at bargain price on Naxos) is under-rated as a Nielsen conductor and the Danish orchestra play very well indeed for him, while the recording is very natural. Thomas Jensen (Decca - now available on Australian Eloquence) is unsurpassed in Symphony No. 5 in my view, and the fact that the recording is in Decca's best 1950's mono sound shouldn't put you off. The late Bryden Thomson recorded both symphonies for Chandos and I'm always surprised how well they are played and recorded whenever I pop them on - though I think they are separately coupled and quite hard to obtain now.
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