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on 14 June 2013
Nielsen's 2nd Symphony is a bit of a classical "earworm". Colin Davis does a good job with it. By comparison the "reference" Ole Scmidt recording sounds a bit too fast. Having attended the concert the 2nd was recorded at, I think the sound is well captured. The 3rd is a work I have not previously got in to, but this recording might just be the one that takes me accross the gap. A good buy!
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on 30 March 2013
Perhaps because I am less knowledgable than the two reviewers who precede this one, I have less to grumble about. No sarcasm is intended here: quite simply I am a music lover and not any sort of musician or authority. However, I have long loved the Nielsen symphonies having been first introduced to them by a Radio 3 broadcast of No4 conducted by Sir John Barbirolli at the Proms in nineteen sixty something. In recent years my benchmark has been ... and still is ... the Decca set by Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. To be honest I can hardly claim to have made an extensive exploration of other recordings but those I have encountered on CD review programs etc have never made me want to dash out and buy. That was changed immediately when I encountered the first of hese LSO Live recording with Sir Colin Davis. The little taste-and-try excerpts available on Amazon ... always irritatingly brief but a useful guide nonetheless ... were enough to have me ordering at once. I was not disappointed nor have I been disappointed by the two subsequnt issues. This latest, consisting of Nos2&3 I find makes very satisfying listening. No3 is my favourite of the six and maybe, here and there, Davis is a tad restrained in the final movement but this is a minor niggle.

All in all these symphonies are extremely well performed here and the recorded sound is excellent. (With regards my opinion of the recorded sound I should in fairness point out that my sound system is hardly top end hi-fi: neither, however, is it bottom end!)

For anyone unfamiliar with the Nielsen symphonies this, surely, is an ideal starting point and you could do a lot worse that begin with this cd of Nos 2&3. Nielsen's sound world is unique: dramatic, wistful, emergetic and, very often, bursting with the sheer joy of life.

As for those who are already lovers of Nielsen, pick one of these recordings and give it a go. One thing is certain, Sir Colin and the LSO deserve a broad minded loan of your ears!
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on 27 March 2013
With this release, Colin Davis ends his series of live recordings of the Nielsen Symphonies. Those who have heard the earlier couplings of 1 and 6, 4 and 5 will very much know what to expect by now.

Frankly, I don't think Colin Davis `gets' Nielsen in the way he clearly does - say - Sibelius. Not for a moment that I am equating the two great Scandinavian masters here! Their sound worlds are, of course, completely different, and require different approaches to playing and interpretation.

This whole series of recordings - including these two middle-period symphonies, often sound under-characterised in interpretation. The light and shade is simply not there. In this set, for instance, II of the Expansiva just doesn't sound expansive - it comes across as rushed and perfunctory. And the end of `Four Temperaments', instead of surging with volcanic energy, simply sounds foursquare and rather dull.

I note similar lapses throughout the 6 symphonies - for instance, the charming and rustic middle movements (for example in no 4) tend to be dispatched in a rather dispassionate way. Very far from the naiveté intended, one feels. So, despite the excellent playing of the LSO throughout, there are clearly some systemic issues of interpretation which concern me.

Then we come to the sound. If you have read any of my previous reviews, you will know my opinion of the archetypal `LSO Live'/Barbican sound- airless, over-miked, dead and sterile are the terms that leap to mind. You can't wholly blame the Barbican acoustic, dreadful as it is - others have done far better here. Even the 'Classic Sound' team responsible here has done better in this venue, for other labels! (see, for example, their excellent Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony for Chandos).

In this recording, the engineers have added a new twist - they appear to have tried to sweeten the sound and add warmth through digital trickery. The result is not wholly successful instead of adding warmth, the main impact seems to have been to thicken textures. In fact, they have contrived a sound which unusually manages to combine thinness and muddiness. As always, the timpani leap at you, as do other instruments and groupings when brought up in the mix. The vocal soloists in II of `Espansiva' here are clearly too forward; unfortunately, this makes even clearer their somewhat shaky performance and intonation.

All in all, the SACD stereo layer of this recording - despite its DSD origin, actually sounds rather RBCD-like - and not a good CD, at that!

OK, but can we do better? Fortunately, the answer is 'yes'. This coupling of symphonies is also available on SACD/hybrid in a version by the NYPO under Alan Gilbert. Despite a similarly problematic recording venue (the heinous Avery Fisher Hall, another dustbowl of an acoustic), DaCapo managed to achieve a far better sound; moreover, Gilbert clearly sounds more at home in Nielsen's milieu.

On CD, I can recommend the very fine earlier Blomstedt set of the complete Nielsen symphonies on EMI (a great bargain, well transfered from glowing analogue) and the Myung-Whun Chung/Jarvi series with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra on BIS (rather gritty early digital sound, but wonderful performances).

So this Davis recording simply doesn't get a look-in, I'm afraid. Sorry.
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on 31 October 2014
Dear Sir,
In answer to your review of the Nielsen Symphonies (above) I would reply with this:-
Lucy was a student and quite young when she recorded this - she is a wonderful singer having won many prestigious prizes in London. You cannot put a young student down like that by saying what you said about them! You should be encouraging - even though you are there as a critic! The voices of both singers, in fact, are very excellent. They have worked so hard and why be hurtful with your words? Everyone has to LEARN first. You may be a learned critic, but not a very kind person!
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on 19 February 2013
This (SA)CD sees the end of Sir Colin Davis' dash into the world of Carl August Nielsen - consummate trumpet, horn & fiddle player AND, in his capacity of composer, THE national icon of 20th century Danish music. In many ways this must be characterized as a daring initiative on the part of a conductor well into his 83rd year at the time of the first recording, and from the start I have been greatly excited to see if Sir Colin's legendary grasp of Nielsen's contemporary Sibelius would show in his treatment of the great Dane. So far I've found it difficult to reach a clear conclusion, having found much to praise in the symphonies nos. 5 and 6, while the fourth (being slightly overdone) and the first in particular, as I see it, missed the mark somewhat. Consequently, I have in my reviews of both the earlier issues found that a cleaving of the disc - though difficult - might be in order, and interestingly this is also the case with the material in hand.

The second symphony, composed in 1901/02 - exactly 10 years after its predecessor - is, while not a work of youth, still the work of a composer trying for a style of his own. Nielsen had been looking for a suitable subject for a symphony for some time, and as fate would have it he came upon the needed inspiration in an inn in Sjælland (Zealand) where he stayed with his wife and some friends. In the common room Nielsen found a "most amusing coloured picture divided into four squares, in which the temperaments were depicted and given the titles "The Choleric", The Sanguine", "The Melancholic", and the "The Phlegmatic". The choleric was riding a horse; he had a long sword in his hand, and with it he was slashing wildly at the empty space around him. His eyes seemed close to popping out of his head, his hair was blowing insanely round his face, which was so distorted with anger and a devilish hatred, that I couldn't keep myself from laughing. The other three pictures were painted along the same lines, and my friends and I were heartily amused by their naivety, their exaggerated expressivity and their comical seriousness." (in-part translation of Nielsen's program notes (1931) for symphony no. 2). The composer's wife Anne Marie was quick to remark: "This might be just the thing for a symphony" - and less than a year later, it became exactly that.

As usual Sir Colin Davis coaxes some first class playing from the LSO - yet alas, something is missing. The interpretation is careful, straight faced, and clean, making very sure not to belabor the points - and that is precisely where - once again - the point is missed by the illustrious maestro. But ... whoa now, hold my horses ... aren't we living in times where less is more and understatement is the new black? Well, WE may be - but Nielsen wasn't; that, however, is not my point, originalism being a most disputed term these days, and rightly so. My point is that the basis for the music is caricature, which by its very nature is overstatement and "exaggerated expressivity" (Nielsen's own words!). That is why, though you might get away with it in some of the other symphonies, the second cannot be played like Mozart or Schubert ... or Sibelius. This music has to be constantly balancing on a knife's edge, constantly within sneezing distance of "too much" - and there Sir Colin (much like in his rather lack-luster rendering of the first symphony) is not prepared to go. If I ever doubted the truth of this, a quick listen to the sadly neglected recording made by Ole Schmidt (Danish conductor and composer (1928-2010), who coincidentally back in the early 1970s held the reins of the LSO, and as such worked alongside Sir Colin Davis for years) proved me right. His Choleric is seething with rage, his Phlegmatic (even though the movement is unusually fast paced) is utterly disinterested in all things, his Melancholic is positively suicidal, and his Sanguine persona shows to a T the other face of the condition: shallowness - the poisonous side dish to perpetual happiness.

That said, the reading does have its moments - i.e. in the first movement at 5'38 where the choleric (in the shape of the kettle drum) after a minute of relative quiet bangs the table shouting "Now, damn it, do as I say", and at the end of the fourth movement at 4'00 where the larder window is forced by a seemingly very clumsy burglar, leaving the sanguine personality to stop dallying for a moment - but, of course, what could possibly be wrong. Life is wonderful, right? And on we go - into the sunset. It is done better by another neglected Nielsen conductor (incidentally also a Brit with a very capital B) Bryden Thomson, who to boot does a wonderful peacock strut finish ... away from the problem, naturally. But still, nicely executed, Sir Colin.

The "Sinfonia Espansiva" is probably by a wide margin the most popular of Nielsen's symphonies, and it is not difficult to see why: it has everything. There is rural frolicking and sunlight galore, there is wonderment and serious philosophizing, there is daydreaming and contemplation of shapes in drifting clouds - in short: the best of pre-WWI Denmark ... presented at its very best. Sir Colin's version is fairly close to exemplary (and to my ears every bit as good as the recently much publizised recording by Alan Gilbert) - though arguably not quite on a par with some of the home grown issues - Schønwandt or Schmidt ... or my personal favorite: the live recording by Yuri Ahronovitch and the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Unicorn-Kanchana), sadly - and incomprehensibly - still only available on LP. Sir Colin suddenly (and almost equally incomprehensibly) sounds 50 years younger and the music is positively brimming with sunny joie de vivre. The second movement seems strangely rushed in places (frankly, where's the fire?!), but the two singers, appropriately distant, manage their bucolic vocalising quite beautifully.

So again: one case of "nailed it" and one case of "so-so".

It is perhaps no surprise that the two earliest and most carefree works should be furthest from Sir Colin Davis' worldview; I mean, we all get to delight in our understanding of complexity as we grow older, and simple light hearted fun tends to appear just a tiny bit suspect. If you take a general view of the Nielsen symphonies there is great depth and strong feelings aplenty to be found, and that tends to be where conductors prefer to go when interpreting his music. No wonder then that the last three - written after the implosion of Nielsen's nationalism and the birth of his quasi-pacifist humanism - tend to get the most thorough servicing. In the fourth Sir Colin even manages to slightly over-sharpen the bayonets (if that is possible; I'm not a military man). In the case of the symphony no. 1, though, there's a definite inclination towards a Dan Brown-like shoehorning in of tortuous riddles and devious intentions under the motto: there must be more to this than meets the eye. I sincerely think there isn't - and nothing in Nielsen's diaries or voluminous portfolio of writings and letters suggest to me that there is. In the case of symphony no. 2 one often sees what I imagine to be an attempt to turn this musical "scherz" (for lack of a better word) into elevated absolute music. It isn't, and it never will be! On that count Sir Colin stands guilty as charged - to be fair, along with numerous others. As for the symphonies nos. 3-6 I can only recommend that you give them a try. Sir Colin Davis has much to give and even more to say; where that is warranted(!) he deserves a very thorough listening.

As in the case of the two previous discs of symphonies the sound of the recordings is good in SACD - though not exactly spectacular - and I'm told that the CD sound is fine as well. Should one want to hear what SACD can do when wielded by experts try the Sibelius symphonies nos. 2 & 5 - or the Beethoven symphonies - with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra (BIS). Even in two-channel stereo it's an awe inspiring experience.
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