A benchmark Nielsen symphony cycle

There can hardly be a more potent musical symbol for the war against Ukraine, the little man being set upon by a giant neighbour, than Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, its first movement bothered early on by a marching drummer who in time reappears when the strings play a noble anthem and he boldly goes out on a limb – drumming to his own tune, causing  chaos, but not chaos enough to obscure the anthem’s light. The movement closes as a lone clarinet joins the drummer in a slow retreat over a bed of string tone. The power of this music levels with anything in Mahler, Shostakovich or Prokofiev; it is war music writ large and to hear the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under their Chief Conductor Fabio Luisi play it as part of their superb newly released complete Nielsen symphony Cycle on DG 486 3471 (no price available as yet) is to hear its greatest recorded performance in recent years.

And that’s just a single symphony out of six. One Danish critic described the First Symphony as “a child playing with dynamite”, the outer movements brazenly confident, breezy music that knows no fear. Again Luisi excels in The Second Symphony which represents ‘the four temperaments’ (choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, sanguine), music that bounds with exuberance in the outer movements whereas Luisi stretches the ‘melancholic’ third movement to a deeply expressive – and expansive – 12:57, the superb Danish strings remarkably rich in tone.

The radiant Second Symphony is perhaps the most immediately appealing of the six but the Third, or ‘Espansiva’, is in all respects a masterpiece, the first movement opening to a series of disembodied, accelerating chords then, come the central section, taking on the aura of a crowded funfair in full swing, a proportionally symphonic ‘Carousel’ sound-alike, this performance as energetic and impassioned as any we’re likely to hear. Solo voices lend a dream-like quality to the nocturnal second movement and I’m surely not the only commentator who hears in the finale’s second subject a coincidental prophecy of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (at around 3:23).

The ‘Inextinguishable’ (Fourth) flies into action from the off, it’s range of moods and colours throughout strongly prophetic of Shostakovich, especially towards the end of the slow third movement when the strings set up a wild alarm similar to the faster music in Shostakovich 11.  The finale famously features a thunderous battle between two sets of timpani where Luisi and his players taken no prisoners: whether judged as a performance or as a spectacularly dynamic recording, this Nielsen 4 is one in a hundred, at the very least. Further parallels with Shostakovich arrive with the Sixth which, like Shostakovich’s symphonic swan song, employs percussion to establish a very special atmosphere (and note the crazy waltz in the finale, a mad world but not the last word).

Jens Cornelius’s excellent booklet note quotes Nielsen’s confession, made towards the end of his life, that if he could have lived his life again, he would have chased all idle fancies about art out of his head and taken a commercial apprenticeship ‘or do some other form of useful work that would lead to a visible final result. The creative artist’s lot is not a happy one.’ His wildly unpredictable and ceaselessly inventive Sixth Symphony proves just how misguided he would have been to abandon his holy vocation.

A fabulous set in honour of a hugely important symphony cycle. I cannot award it a higher recommendation than that.

2 thoughts on “A benchmark Nielsen symphony cycle

  1. I’m a great fan of the Nielsen symphonies, and look forward to investigating this cycle. My absolute favourite symphony performance is number 4 with Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It would be interesting to see how these compare.


    1. Luisi is a beefier option, a fuller body of sound – though Martinon is undeniably exciting. I might say that Luisi offers us Nielsen from a Bucknerian axis. Best. Rob.


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