Friday, January 23, 2015

Nielsen in a Nutshell

Decca 478 6469 (6-disc box set) (2014)
Carl Nielsen: Complete Symphonies (1-6)
Aladdin Suite; Maskarade Overture
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco SO
Little Suite for Strings Op. 1
Hymnus Amoris Op. 12
Maskarade (complete opera)
Ulf Schirmer/Danish National Radio SO & Chorus
Barbara Bonny (soprano)/John Mark Ainsley (tenor ) et al.

What a treat to have these fine performances in beautifully re-mastered sound, all handsomely packaged together in this sturdy, convenient box from 2014.  One of the recent entries in Universal's on-going Collector's Edition series, this welcome set makes a near-ideal introduction to the great Danish composer's large-scale works, featuring Herbert Blomstedt's very-fine 1988-1990 traversal of the symphonies with his halcyon San Francisco players,  as well as Ulf Schirmer's sparkling unabridged reading of Nielsen's 1907 operatic masterpiece, Maskarade, recorded with an all-star cast in 1998, The collection also includes excellent performances of the Aladdin Suite (including the rarely heard choral sections), and the Hymnus Amoris, Nielsen's choral magnum opus with its youthful echoes of Brahms.

A contemporary of Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius, and Elgar, Nielsen's mature music is distinctively--unmistakably-- his own. His symphonies and operas are masterpieces of organic musical thinking on a grand scale, expertly organized, each theme worked out to its fullest dramatic potential. The music at times seems to reflect a restless sensibility; the creative genius caught between the conflicting stylistic tidal forces of the day. This feeling of unsettled-ness--of frenetic psychological struggle-- is often manifested quite literally in the convoluted structural and harmonic conflicts within many of the later symphonic movements. Yet, these episodes of  aural "chaos" (occasionally approaching a near-Ives-ian cacophony) are always artfully premeditated, lending, in retrospect, a sense of completeness to the whole. From the tautly constructed, Tchaikovsky-influenced First, the lyrically expressive tone-painting of the Second, the luminous and triumphant Third; the passion and fire of the Fourth--the aptly named "Inextinguishable", the exciting, ebullient Fifth, and the brilliant, quirky, hair-raising Sixth (a symphony that is anything but "Simple"), Nielsen achieved that to which Mahler claimed to aspire; his symphonies seem to be like the world, containing everything.

Nielsen's music has fared very well on record over the decades. Looking back at my own extensive LP collection, a number of marvelous performances come immediately to memory, whether Ole Schmidt's highly regarded 1973 readings with the London Symphony Orchestra for Unicorn, the first complete stereo cycle (presently available on CD from the Alto label), or the magnificent live performance of the Fifth by the Concertgebouw under Kiril Kondrashin (alas, coupled with an uncharacteristically lackluster Sibelius Fifth) (Philips 412-069-1 (1984)). On CD, the dynamic, viscerally compelling performances by Myung Whun Chung and the Gothenburg Symphony for BIS are some of the most sonically impressive recordings ever made, if not always the most subtle or musically satisfying. (I recommend collecting the BIS cycle on separate discs as opposed to the 1993 "integral" set, which does not include some of the shorter, less-often heard works from the individual albums.)

Blomstedt's readings of the symphonies are decidedly short on gut punches, but appropriately dramatic, well-thought out, and highly detailed. (I imagine what Bernard Haitink might have done with this repertory had he ever taken it up.) The recorded sound, while not as wide open or woolly as the Chung readings, is well-focused, and pleasingly transparent, capturing the quiet moments with exquisite clarity, while the big tutti passages are aptly powerful, but never overpowering or distorted. While no date is given for this latest re-mastering, the sound to my ears is a definite improvement over the original London CDs-- all the material in this box set has appeared in several packagings over the last two decades.

Enthusiastically recommended!



London 421 524 2 (1988)
Nielsen: Symphonies #s 4 & 5
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco SO

London 425 607 2 (1989)
Nielsen: Symphonies #s 1 & 6
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco SO

London 430 280 2 (1990)
Nielsen: Symphonies #s 2 & 3
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco SO

London/Decca (Double Decker) 460 985 (1999)
Nielsen: Symphonies #s 1, 2, 3: Aladdin Suite
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco SO

London/Decca (Double Decker) 460 988 (1999)
Nielsen: Symphonies #s 4, 5, 6
Little Suite for Strings Op. 1
Blomstedt/San Francisco SO (Symphonies)
Ulf Schirmer/Danish National Radio SO (Suite)

BIS-CD-454 (1990)
Nielsen: Symphony #1 in g minor Op. 7
Rhapsody Overture: An Imaginary Trip to the Hebrides (1927)
Flute Concerto (1926)
Myung Whun Chung/Gothenburg SO
Patrick Gallois (flute)

BIS-CD-247 (1983)
Nielsen: Symphony #2 'The Four Temperaments' Op. 16
Aladdin Suite Op. 34
Myung Whun Chung/Gothenburg SO

BIS-CD-321 (1986)
Nielsen: Symphony #3 'Sinfonia Espansiva' Op. 27
Overture to Maskarade (1906)
Clarinet Concerto Op. 57
Myung Whun Chung/Gothenburg SO
Olle Schill (clarinet)

BIS-CD-600 (1993)
Nielsen: Symphony #4 'The Inextinguishable' Op. 29
Symphony #6 'Sinfonia Semplice' (1925)
Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg SO

BIS-CD-370 (1987)
Nielsen: Symphony #5 Op. 50
Violin Concerto Op. 33
Myung Whun Chung/Gothenburg SO
Dong-Suk Kang (violin)

BIS 614 (3-disc set) (1994 compilation)
Nielsen: Symphonies 1-6;
Violin Concerto; Flute Concerto; Clarinet Concerto
Myung Whun Chung/Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg SO

Chandos CHAN 8911/12 (1990)
Nielsen: Saul and David Op. 25
Neeme Järvi/Danish National Radio SO & Chorus
Aage Haugland (Saul)
Peter Lindroos (David)
Tina Kiberg (Mikal)
Anne Gjevang (Witch of Endor)
Christian Christiansen (Samuel the Prophet)

RCA 6359-2RC (1987)
James Galway Plays Nielsen
Nielsen: Flute Concerto;
Wind Quintet Op. 43 etc.
James Galway/Danish Radio SO

Chandos CHAN 8853 (1990)
Nielsen: Hymnus Amoris Op. 12
The Sleep Op. 18; Springtime in Funen Op. 42
Three Motets Op. 55
Stefan Parkman/Danish National Radio Chamber Choir


Danacord DMA 061-062 (1984)
CD re-issue: Danacord DACOCD 368 (1994)
Nielsen: Complete Works for A Cappella Choir
Franz Rasmussen/Kanzone-Koret

Philips 412-069-1 (1984)
Nielsen: Symphony #5
Sibelius: Symphony #5
Kiril Kondrashin/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Unicorn KPM 7001 (1974) (Symphony #1)
Unicorn KPM 7002 (1974) (Symphony #2)
Unicorn KPM 7003 (1974) (Symphony #3)
Unicorn KPM 7004 (1974) (Symphony #4)
Unicorn KPM 7005 (1974) (Symphony #5)
Unicorn KPM 7006 (1974) (Symphony #6)
Unicorn UN3-75019X (3-LP box set) (1976 re-issue) (Symphonies 4-6)
CD re-issue: Regis RRC 3002 (2008)
CD re-issue: Alto ALC 2505 (2013)
Olle Schmidt/London SO

CBS (Masterworks) M3P 39639 (3-LP box set) (1984)
Nielsen: Symphonies 1-4
Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic

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