on 19 March 2012
As the music of Carl Nielsen gradually spreads to the rest of the world, and more and more foreign conductors take up the challenge of interpreting his symphonies, it must in the nature of things be the particular duty of his compatriots - of whom I am one - to sample and weigh such endeavours, weaned on these national edifices as one is. As expressed in my earlier review of the first disc of symphonies, the now octogenarian Sir Colin Davis certainly digs into Nielsen con gusto, hitting the all-embracing fifth very close to the mark while I still find the fourth to be precipitate and lacking in concentration and detail.
The coupling of the symphonies Nos. 1 and 6 is a popular but fiendishly difficult one, as the works are all but diametrically opposite in nature. The first, begun when the composer was only 25, is a real barnstormer, fearless and impetuous as only youth can be, and much more so than the early works by Sibelius, an exact contemporary to whom Nielsen is often compared. No doubt Nielsen took much of his inspiration from Brahms, whose fourth symphony (of 1885) he greatly admired, but there the common ground sort of ends. Unfortunately Davis' grasp - of the orchestra undisputedly second to none - doesn't quite extend to the post-adolescent excesses of the great Dane. Though the music is very well played it comes over as way too ponderous and marinated in a late-romantic "Weltschmerz" entirely alien to pre-WWI Nielsen. When taking in this recording of the G minor symphony I couldn't help wondering if Sir Colin had perhaps Mahler's first - or Rachmaninov's second even - in slightly too fresh a memory; and that is not suitable company for the care-free Nielsen. One of the early promoters of the symphonies, the conductor Erik Tuxen (1902-57), was once asked what he felt the first symphony was about, particularly compared to the warlike image of the fourth. Tuxen dramatically put a hand to his forehead, closed his eyes and said: "I see before me a dog, not a very big one, mind you, running along the fence of a chicken run". He may have been joking (probably was), but somehow the picture to me is closer to the essence of early Nielsen than Davis' rather grey-faced one. For a performance brimming with the Champagne-sparkle required one must turn elsewhere, and Michael Schønwandt (Dacapo), Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Warner) - and Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sony), in particular - can be trusted to find the right atmosphere of jovial invincibility. For sure-footed navigation through the emotional minefield of the Nielsen symphonies in general, Herbert Blomstedt is still well-nigh unequaled.
The sixth symphony, on the other hand, is a work right up Sir Colin's alley, technically tortuous and minimalistic at the same time. Nielsen was equally horrified and morbidly fascinated by the musical expressions of the Second Vienese School; in the "Sinfonia semplice", however, he does take us for a stroll through the zoo - never too close to the cages, though. Trough a finely ballanced combination of normal and extended tonality, plus the odd unexpected dissonance - not infrequently interpreted (probably correctly) as vitriolic stabs at Schoenberg - he presents us with a work that is both new, exciting, puzzling ... AND securely anchored in the traditional musical ideom. At the time of composition Nielsen was already a marked man due to congestive heart failure, and there is a certain frailty and perseverance - an almost desperate reluctance to let go - in the music along with the occasionally rather brash statements. Sir Colin never recorded much of the early 20th century avant-garde himself, and his insistence on a basically romantic sound succeeds in highlighting the scattered instances of modernity that keep the symphony rather unevenly suspended - much like the poles of a circus tent. Others like Blomstedt and Salonen have made fine recordings of the sixth, but Davis provides a certain old-school charm that I personally find very appealing. In the field of Nielsen six'es you need look no further.
The sound of the recordings is fine - slightly better in SACD, without the mind-blowing effect of recordings such as Osmo Vänskä's recent Beethoven and Sibelius symphonies (BIS) - and as usual the cooperation of the LSO and its illustrious conductor is a wonder in and of itself.
Again we have a disc that should rightfully be cut in half, but as that tends to result in a somewhat inferior sound reproduction, I'll keep the first symphony as a reminder that most things conceived by the young are perhaps best handled by the young. Being youthful isn't always enough. Sorry, Sir Colin.