Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Happy 150th! Ole Schmidt's Nielsen

LP series: 
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)
CD re-issues: 
Regis RRC 3002 (3-disc set) (2008)
Alto (Musical Concepts) ALC 2505 (3-disc set) (2013)
Carl Nielsen: Complete Symphonies 1-6
Ole Schmidt/London Symphony Orchestra

The great Danish composer Carl Nielsen was born 150 years ago this week, on 8 June, 1865, and I would certainly be remiss to ignore the occasion. You can read some of my broader thoughts about this fascinating musical figure in my recent review of Decca's 2014 Collector's Edition box set here.

Ole Schmidt's marvelous 1973 traversal of the symphonies with the LSO was released as a series of separate LPs on the Unicorn label the following year. Schmidt's was the first complete cycle to be recorded entirely in stereo, and, in many ways, encouraged major labels to take a closer look at --and a bolder chance on-- this music, thus laying the groundwork for many great records of the future. The sound is inviting, sumptuous, and vivid with a deep, resonant ambiance. The orchestral playing is impeccable. Schmidt's interpretations are, for the most part, profoundly compelling, making a near-airtight case for these ingenious, quirky, electrifying compositions. This cycle remains the benchmark for this repertory, in spite of many fine subsequent efforts (Chung, Blomstedt etc.). The last three symphonies, especially,  are Promethean in their luminous passion and implacable drive. My only complaint is with the Sinfonia Espansiva, where Schmidt inexplicably drops the ball--not to mention the taut thread of the long line-- in the finale. This is doubly disappointing given the compelling magnificence of all the rest.

The 3-disc Alto re-issue from 2013 would be a bargain at many times its modest budget price. The re-masterings (one assumes they are the same ones as on the earlier Regis set) are excellent, akin to an expert art-restorer's clean-up of a beloved Rembrandt or Titian, and the transfers are first rate.

Hearing these wonderful performances again reminded me of how I fell in love with this music--but more importantly, of why.

Enthusiastically recommended!

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