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Recordings

Carl Nielsen: Complete Symphonies
07 Jan 2007

NIELSEN: Complete Symphonies

Notable among recent releases, the set of the Complete Symphonies by Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) on DVD makes available some fine performances of the composer’s important contributions to the genre.

Carl Nielsen: Complete Symphonies

Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Michael Schønwandt, conductor.

Da Capo 2.110403-04 [3DVDs]

$31.99  Click to buy

The choice of presenting the recordings on DVD is wise in affording fine sound and also preserving the concerts for a wide audience who might not be acquainted with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the conducting of Michael Schønwandt. The six symphonies are presented on two DVD, with three on each disc, and the package includes an extensive booklet as well as an additional DVD that presents the documentary On the Light and the Darkness: On Carl Nielsen’s Life and Music. The music alone extends to just over three-and-one-half hours, and the documentary is just about an hour in length. Neatly packaged and priced fairly, this is a model of presentation for concert music. It seems designed to make the music and performances easily available. Moreover, those who interested in viewing the performance can do so, while computers with DVD utilities can allow for the sound alone, if desired.

As to the recordings themselves, the DVD issued in 2006 include performances that Schønwandt conducted on 2 and 4 November 2000 – an impressive feat itself, for the solid results that emerge from live concerts given in such a short span. The concerts were filmed well, with sufficient cameras that captured not only the long views from the audience, but also added various angles on stage or behind the orchestra. In addition, close-ups of individual players and sections contribute variety to the video imagery, which can be a challenge with DVDs of orchestral concerts. The panning is well thought, with smooth transitions that avoid any sense of frenetic motion and, thus, erode the continuity found in the passages the visuals underscore. At the same time, the crisp and vivid video quality matches the clean, full sound on the DVD. Overall the balance is quite good, with the sonics capturing the subtleties that are crucial to these specific works.

The content of the DVDs themselves benefit from the performances that they preserve. Those familiar with these works will appreciate the even hand and attention to detail that Schønwandt has brought to the music. His tempos are convincing, as in the appropriately brisk opening of Symphony no. 4, op. 29 (1914-16), which stands in contrast to the lyrical section that soon follows, one of the memorable sections of this, perhaps the best-known of Nielsen’s works. It is at points like this that the shots of Schønwandt demonstrate his command of the orchestra in conveying the mood with both facial expressions and physical gestures to the ensemble. He does not conduct for the audience, but seems to elicit the music from his players on stage, without indulging in excessive displays or meaningless gesture.

Later in the same movement, to cite one example, Schønwandt brings out the brass entrance masterfully, so that the timbre emerges from the ensemble, rather than piercing through the string texture that preceded it. It is in such a controlled performance that erodes the credibility of the famous bon mot of Richard Strauss in warning conductors not to look directly at the brass for fear of encouraging them. Rather, the eye contact and body language Schønwandt uses here serve to guide the players in executing this work and the others in this set. Thus, with the Finale of “the Inextinguishable,” Schønwandt has established a solid tempo with the strings in order to establish a context for the confident and clean entrances of the various timbres that intersect it, including the intricate timpani passages, as the work moves toward a satisfying conclusion. In this performance, Schønwandt allows the dissonances Nielsen used in his harmonic language to intensify the structure, by using the dynamics and balance to control the sound. In fact, the rhythmic applause at the end of this Symphony and also the Fifth stands as evidence to the audience’s enthusiasm. Without drawing comparisons with other recordings, the manipulation of the ensemble for this movement is one of the high points of the DVD. Those interested in this recording may wish to start with the movement to gain a sense of the style of the performances found on the set.

With the Fifth Symphony, op. 50 (1920-22) Schønwandt offers another fine reading, and from the start brings out the chamber-music-like character that may be found throughout the work. Rather than allowing the sometimes isolated sounds to stand apparent, he handles the entrances deftly. The result is a convincing interpretation of the first movement which, in turn, becomes a point of departure for the rest of the work. The interpretation of Scherzo is notable for the clarity that emerges in the contrapuntal writing with which it begins. Formally closer, perhaps, to the Scherzos of Bruckner than those of his contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich, Nielsen’s mastery of form and structure are apparent in this concise movement. While the Scherzo characteristically offers some opportunity for raucous and popular elements to become part of the symphonic structure, this movement offers an opportunity to maintain the integrity of the thematic content without diluting it with extraneous elements. It is, perhaps, these aspects of formality that Nielsen himself enhanced by refraining to give this Symphony a subtitle, as he did with the three that preceded it. At the same time, Schønwandt brings out various sound masses to suggest the group polyphony that Nielsen aspired to use in his symphonic music.

In fact, it is in the Nielsen’s last symphony, Sixth (without opus number, composed between 1924 and 1925), subtitled “Sinfonia semplice,” that some of the modernist elements emerge most clearly. This is, perhaps, the most challenging of the composer’s scores and Schønwandt delivers a powerful reading of the work. The spare sonorities characteristic of Nielsen’s late works emerge here quite effectively, but this work also evinces a different approach to structure. In the Sixth Symphony, Nielsen has designated the usual Scherzo as a Humoresque, thus evoking the aspect of temperaments and also calling to mind his Second Symphony, which is subtitled “The Four Temperaments.” The “Proposta seria” serves as the point of departure for the third movement, which takes as its point of departure the term used in the Baroque era for a fugue subject, and thus introduces a contrapuntal structure to the usually closed form of the slow movement. Yet in the Finale, the composer has a set of theme and nine variations, thus bringing yet another structural innovation to this work.

At the same time, this Sixth is most modern sounding of Nielsen’s symphonies. Schønwandt approaches this work with the same intelligence that has guided his interpretations of the earlier ones. Schønwandt’s enthusiasm for Nielsen’s First Symphony (1889-94) is apparent in his extroverted gestures, which set the tone of the performance from the start. The late Romantic style emerges clearly in this recording, which also looks forward to some of the symphonic elements the composer would explore in his later works in the genre.

The Second Symphony, op.16 (1901-2), called “The Four Temperaments,” is a musical depiction of the humors, as indicated by the tempo designations of each movement: (1) Allegro collerico; (2) Allegro comodo e flemmatico; (3) Andante malincolico; and (4) Allegro sanguineo. Schønwandt brings out the character of each movement convincingly, in a performance that also shows cohesiveness of the ensemble. While a perceptive and attentive ensemble is de rigueur for these works, it is essential for this work, which spans the interpretive distance between absolute and programmatic music. The Andante is notable for its expansive sonic effect and emotional impact, and the Schønwandt delivers the Finale in a fittingly spirited manner.

Likewise the Third Symphony, op. 27 (1910-11), the “Sinfonia espansiva,” benefits from Schønwandt’s command of the orchestra. While Nielsen adhered to the conventional four-movement symphonic structure in all his works in the genre, he used voices in the second movement, the Andante pastoral, with the solo parts delivered by Inger Dam-Jensen, soprano, and Poul Elming, tenor. In this movement Nielsen anticipates the Finale of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Third “Pastoral” Symphony (1921), which uses a wordless female chorus for a similar effect. This innovative touch is particularly effective in the balance that Schønwandt has achieved, with two fine singers whose timbres enhance the finely hewed orchestral colors that are already present in the work. The program notes found in the extensive booklet that accompanies the set, provides some useful information about the ideas behind the work, based on firsthand accounts from the composer himself.

In addition to the symphonies, the third DVD in the set contains the roughly hour-long documentary “The Light and the Darkness: On Carl Nielsen’s Life and Music” by Karl Aage Rasmussen. Those unfamiliar with Nielsen’s work will find this to be an intelligent introduction, while those who know his music will appreciate the insights that are offered in the film, as well as the fine iconography that is rendered well in the DVD. As a bonus DVD, the documentary is a welcome addition to the set, and complements the set of symphonies quite well. Priced affordably and packaged neatly, Da Capo’s DVD of Nielsen’s Complete Symphonies is a fine offering that has much to recommend.

James L. Zychowicz

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