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.