Ingar Dam-Jensen (s), Poul Elming (t), Micheal Schonwandt conducting the Danish National Radio Symphony
Paavo Jarvi conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
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I have yet to hear either the earlier cycle of Nielsen symphonies that Schonwandt recorded with the Danish Radio Orchestra, or the one by Douglas Bostock with the Royal Liverpool Orchestra that was released at around the same time. For many critics, the standard recommendation for this music remains Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, now available on two mid-line Decca reissues. Though the orchestra plays very well indeed and the sound still impresses, Bloomstedt's sometimes glacial neutrality robs the music of its characteristic spontaneity and warmth. I've always much preferred the cycle on BIS with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by both the undervalued Myung-Whun Chung (in Symphonies 1-3, 4 and 5) and Neeme Jarvi (in Symphonies 4 and 6). Jarvi's contributions are serviceable and sometimes exciting too, but Chung's deeply sympathetic readings, so full of light and energy, have until now eclipsed the competition.
Dacapo's package spreads the symphonies over two discs; a third disc is given over to an informative documentary (The Light and the Darkness) on Nielsen's life and music. For the symphonies, the visuals (by Peter Hanke) put the emphasis squarely on the orchestra. Though we also see a lot of Schonwandt on the podium, we spend most of our time watching the musicians actually, physically producing the music. And that's just as it should be; for each member of the orchestra executes his or her role with such extraordinary concentration and commitment, you'd think that every note had been written expressly for him or her alone. And, of course, in a very definite way, it was. Throughout much of his early career as a composer, Nielsen played in the orchestra; and it premiered many of his later symphonic works. The authority with which the orchestra plays Nielsen's music comes from a rich tradition that's been handed down from one generation to the next. Though these once exotic works are now widely and well played by orchestras around the world, the Danish National seems in touch with the essential character and spirit of the music in ways you just won't hear elsewhere. Their pride and sense of ownership register in every note.
I certainly don't mean to minimize the conductor's contribution. Schonwandt understands the importance of presenting the music as directly as possible. The documentary includes footage of Leonard Bernstein conducting the last part of the finale of the "Sinfonia espansiva" with the Danish Radio Orchestra. Characteristically, Bernstein approaches the music from a very Romantic point of view, and he makes heavy weather of the finale: broadening the tempo to make the huge climax all the more emphatic. Schonwandt instead emphasizes the Classical nature of the music, setting a brisk tempo that builds to the climax in an altogether natural and convincing way. In general, Schonwandt favors fast tempos, but the music never seems rushed. Most importantly, he's able to characterize Nielsen's many shifting mood swings without breaking a singing line.
In short, there are no recordings of the complete Nielsen symphonies to match these. Schonwandt and his remarkable orchestra capture all the spontaneity and warmth, the intensity and dynamism of these highly individual works. Toward the end of the Sixth Symphony, just before the entrance of the waltz variation, Schonwandt can be seen smiling at the string players, who return the smile knowingly — as if they were all sharing a deep and abiding secret. In these noble performances, all of Nielsen's secrets are revealed.
The DVD sound is very good indeed, and renders the spacious acoustic of the hall with warmth and immediacy. If the perspective is a little distant, a seat in the balcony rather than the orchestra, you can move closer by simply boosting the volume. Overall, the sound represents the performances honorably. Even in the huge climaxes, there's a wealth of expressive detail; and in more intimate passages, one hears an almost chamber-like interplay of textures. The bass here won't rattle the china, but it's resonant and convincing throughout.
If you don't know these works at all, Schonwandt and the orchestra will fully demonstrate why they're worthy of your most passionate attention. If you're already a devoted follower of the composer, you have a genuine treat in store. And here's more good news. When I last checked, this three-DVD set was a available for less than $24, an incredible bargain given its many virtues.