Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7, FS16 (1891-1892) [33:20]
No. 2, Op. 16, FS 29 The Four Temperaments (1901-1902)
No. 3, Op. 27, FS60 Sinfonia espansiva (1910-1911) [37:57]
No. 4, Op. 29, FS76 The Inextinguishable (1914-1916) [35:08]
No. 5, Op. 50, FS97 (1921-1922) [36:00]
No. 6, FS116, Sinfonia semplice (1924-1925) [35:18]
Gillian Keith (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone) (3); Paul Turner (timpani),
Geraint Daniel (timpani) (4); John Bradbury (clarinet), Paul Patrick
BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds
rec. 2012-15, MediaCity, Salford, UK
Note: Dan Morgan reviews the 24/96 download from theclassicalshop.net
CHANDOS CHAN10859 (3) [3 CDs: 66:44 + 73:20 + 71:34]
For many years, the complete sets of Nielsen symphonies
conducted by Ole
Schmidt with the LSO and by Herbert Blomstedt with the Danish Radio
Symphony Orchestra (EMI)
or the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (Decca)
had this particular niche of the market to themselves, though there
were important individual symphony recordings by people like Leonard
Bernstein and Thomas Jensen (review
How things change. Since the turn of the century, there has been a constant
stream of complete cycles on CD, many highly distinguished, such as
those from Colin Davis, (LSO Live - Jack
Lawson and see also John
Quinn's review and another impending and contrasting one
from Dominy Clements), Neeme Järvi (DG Trio), Rozhdestvensky
Thomson (both Chandos). Earlier today, I heard Building a
Library on BBC Radio 3, where Andrew Mellor discussed recordings
of the Sinfonia Espansiva, coming up with the decision that
Chung’s BIS CD from his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra set
was his favourite. Alan Gilbert has just completed his cycle with the
New York Philharmonic on the Danish Dacapo label (Symphonies
1 & 4; Symphonies
2 & 3; Symphonies
5 & 6).
So is there room for yet another contender, especially as it is one
more from the Chandos stable? The answer, for me at any rate, is a resounding
‘Yes’, with Finnish maestro John Storgårds once more leading
the BBC Philharmonic in following up their fine Sibelius complete symphonies
of a year or so back (Chandos CHAN10809(3)). He gives alert, dramatic
and brilliantly detailed performances of all six of these great works,
characterising them sharply, and bringing out their stunning originality,
their deliberate waywardness - or cussedness, if you like - as well
as their composer’s captivating sense of humour. Incidentally,
I mentioned BBC Building a Library above, and I should say
that it was pointed out that Storgård’s recording of the Espansiva
arrived too late to be considered in that choice, but that the complete
cycle would be featured in CD Review on 13 June 2015.
Storgårds has the capacity to draw the best out of the BBC Philharmonic.
It has always been a superb orchestra; during the 1970s and 1980s they
were Manchester’s best, given that the Hallé was going through
its difficult post-Barbirolli years. Many people, myself included, would
say that they can be - again at their best - even finer than the London-based
BBC Symphony Orchestra. Fine margins; but listen to these discs and
you will hear playing of the very highest quality from every section,
as well as a beautifully integrated tutti sound when needed.
The Chandos engineers have captured all this perfectly; you can’t
afford any artificial balancing in Nielsen, for it must above all sound
natural, allowing the instruments to establish internal relationships
one with another.
For me, the first two symphonies were a revelation, as they are the
ones I knew least well. Yes, the First is a work that
has its roots firmly in the 19th century tradition, but its
stormy opening projects the composer’s personality strongly, with
an impetuosity and a certain impatience to ‘get on with it’
that we find also at the start of the next three symphonies. The Andante
has a Beethovenian inwardness, and gives a clear taste of the beauty
of the Philharmonic’s string tone, as well as some fine woodwind
contributions. Storgårds, all the way through the cycle, insists on
a very wide dynamic range, from almost inaudible pianissimo
to crashing fortissimo; this is done for all the absolutely
right musical reasons, but could make it a challenge to set your volume
control at the right level.
That impetuosity I mentioned is of course felt powerfully in the first
movement of Symphony no.2, subtitled The Four Temperaments.
The marking is Allegro collerico, and the music expresses anger,
passion and fire in equal measure. Those who met this composer always
describe him as a mild-mannered, gently spoken man; yet clearly there
was tremendous anger raging within, for it breaks into his music constantly,
not just here where it is ‘nominated’.
The Allegro comodo e flemmatico perfectly expresses ‘phlegmatic’
calm, while the middle section brings to the fore an important Nielsen
fingerprint, namely the use of repeated notes, usually marked staccato.
These threaten to disturb the tranquillity, but are rapidly dismissed.
Not so the melancholy of the beautiful and uneasy third movement, where
Storgårds once more calls forth wonderfully rich sounds from his strings.
The intensity of this brings to mind, for me, the music of Nielsen’s
contemporaries Albéric Magnard or even (stretching the dates a bit)
Samuel Barber. It’s a fine movement, but creates a problem in
that the ‘sanguine’ finale does feel a bit like a dog that’s
been cooped up for too long being let loose in the wide open spaces.
Nielsen’s inventiveness, and the brilliance of the playing here,
won me over, but it’s not perhaps the composer’s greatest
With CD 2, we arrive at the works on which Nielsen’s reputation
truly rests; we have here the Espansiva and the Inextinguishable,
both works of stunning power and inventiveness. We are told that Nielsen
himself, when rehearsing the opening of Symphony no.3
for the first time, quailed somewhat at all those explosive repeated
notes but what an opening. Unlike some composers who manage
gripping openings which they can’t quite follow up, Nielsen is
up to the challenge, writing a first movement that is indeed expansive,
but emotionally very complex. I found Storgårds here absolutely superb,
balancing detail and the great sweep of the structure ideally well.
However, there is a drawback to this performance, and it comes in the
second movement. This is where Nielsen had the poetic idea of two wordless
voices, male and female, that emerge towards the end of the movement.
It’s a wonderful concept, and potentially magical, but also fraught
with dangers and problems. The voices need to sound effortless and natural,
not at all stagey or grandly expressive; Storgård’s baritone,
Mark Stone – though a singer I admire greatly – simply overdoes
it, with fulsome operatic tone. Such a pity, because it’s a key
moment in the symphony. In fairness, I can’t say I’ve come
across a recording yet that gets it just right, in terms of
the timbre of the voices and their placing in relation to the orchestra.
The third movement of the Espansiva picks up the rather despondent
mood with which the Andante finishes, after that vision of
pastoral beauty has faded. Wonderful phrasing from the Philharmonic’s
principal oboe, and great contrast between this and the irascible music
that immediately interrupts it. This is one of Nielsen’s most
equivocal and fascinating movements, alternating between swaying dance
themes and questing fugato passages that must have made Shostakovich
sit up and think — you’ll see what I mean if you listen
to track 3, 3:52 to about 4:25. The ending, with its eddying flute solo
slowly settling, brings us back to exactly where we were at the end
of the second movement; little emotional progress, despite all the hard
This is what makes Nielsen such a very great symphonist; he presents
a problem, then explores different ‘solutions’, eventually
finding one that can carry all before it. His ultimate reference point
could be said to be the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, where themes
of previous movements are paraded and systematically rejected before
the arrival of the Joy theme.
Nielsen’s solution arrives in the shape of the magnificent muscular
theme of the fourth movement, which propels the symphony to its resounding
conclusion. Once more, I was struck by Storgård’s avoidance of
exaggerating or distorting the music; here I find him superior, or preferable,
to Myung-Whun Chung, who overplays it rather sensationally; very exciting,
but for me OTT.
It might seem a long way from the affirmation of that finale to the
wrath and chaos that often engulfs the listener in the first movement
of the Inextinguishable, Symphony no.4. It
is not really that far; anger and frustration are present in
all of the first three movements of the Espansiva, and they
become the subject matter of this next symphony, rather than its subtext.
There is humour too, in the way the spectral end of the Allegro
is replaced calmly by a Mozartian wind serenade at the outset of the
poco allegretto. That insouciant music is itself soon summarily
ousted by the great lament of the strings, punctuated by the hammer-strokes
of the timpani, that announce the beginning of the poco adagio
All of this is characterised with mesmerising intensity by these musicians;
Storgårds allows the tension in the poco adagio to grow imperceptibly,
until it becomes almost unbearable, bursting out at last in the hectic
finale. The high-point here is the famous ‘battle of the timpani’,
in which, for maximum impact, the composer wanted the two players and
their drums placed as near the audience as possible. I always cherish
the great Robert Simpson’s comment on this: “Conductors
seem unwilling to risk this, fearing perhaps an incontinent flight from
the stalls’. Nicely put. Storgård’s timpanists — named
in the CD notes, along with various other key instrumentalists, a welcome
touch — have a rare old punch-up. I love that they are using really
hard sticks, which gives huge benefit not only in terms of physical
impact, but of clarity too.
The intrusion of a percussion instrument, seemingly intent on malevolent
disruption, also plays a vital role in the first movement of the next
symphony, no.5, which is probably nowadays Nielsen’s
most often performed work. It is cast in two large movements, both sub-divided
into a number of contrasting sections. Unlike the first four symphonies,
it begins softly, with a two-note ostinato in the violas, against which
the bassoons give out an unquiet, fragmented theme. Beautifully shaped
by the players, with Storgårds at the quick end of the tempo spectrum
here. This pays dividends, because this opening section can seem very
long drawn-out until things begin to hot up with the arrival of the
militaristic side-drum a few minutes in. As in the finale of the Fourth,
the climax arrives with a pitch battle, this time between the side-drum
and the rest of the orchestra. Nielsen, in his score, instructs the
drummer to ‘try to stop the course of the music’. It is
even more dramatic, one of the most gripping pieces of purely musical
theatre in the whole of symphonic literature. It is thrilling here,
though with one important reservation; as the crescendo builds towards
the conflict, all the strings repeatedly play fortissimo a
terse phrase of demi-semiquavers which has been initiated by the woodwind.
This must be heard - but alas in this recording disappears far too soon
in the general clamour.
Once the finale gets underway, there is, for quite a lot of the time,
very little a conductor can do but beat time as accurately and firmly
as possible — believe me, I’ve tried it — so busy
and intricate is the string figuration that continues throughout the
much of the movement. At first I thought Storgårds’ tempo just
a little too slow to provide the necessary urgency but it pays off in
the end, again in terms of clarity and momentum.
Another fascinating study is Nielsen’s use of fugue in
the symphonies; indeed, he can be given credit for having revived its
importance in symphonic discourse. There are two wonderful fugues in
this finale; the first a scary “witches’ Sabbath”,
which eventually disappears up its own broomstick handle; the second
a very beautiful slowly unfolding passage, at first for strings alone,
but gradually drawing in the whole orchestra. There is a palpable sense
here of the music turning inwards to discover truth, and it paves the
way for an affirmative but never complacent coda. It’s always
a near-surprise when the end comes – a sudden realisation that
we are home and dry. Storgårds steers the music rather than driving
it, and the effect is powerfully satisfying.
So to the unique Sinfonia Semplice, the sixth
and final symphony. I mentioned Shostakovich earlier on, and I have
always felt a kinship between the two composers’ final symphonies.
David Fanning points out in his excellent booklet notes, Shostakovich
was composing his first symphony while Nielsen was writing
this final one. Not only does each symphony open with tinkling percussion,
but both first movements have that unsettling character of games which
go wrong, sinister elements creeping in and spoiling the party. I found
this the finest performance in the set, for Storgårds is equally successful
in the humorous and the dark music, finding the perfect tempo to bind
the movement together.
The middle movements are equally remarkable; a deeply sarcastic scherzo
which the composer said was to some extent a critique of ‘modern
music’. Great fun, with the muted trombone glissandi hilariously
rude. Then follows the ‘Serious Proposition’
(proposta seria) of the slow third movement; an uneasy, and
at times agonised outpouring, that ends in an emotionally neutral tone,
suggesting that the worst may be behind us. The finale opens with a
lively introduction, leading to the theme that becomes the subject of
nine terrific variations, first presented by the solo unaccompanied
bassoon. Storgårds and his players characterise these variations with
brilliant sharpness - the waltz of Variation 6 is pure delight, and
there’s even a duet for xylophone and tuba. It all ends with one
of the best rude jokes in music – what a piece.
I had a wonderful time listening to these superb performances, and felt
the deepest admiration for conductor and orchestra. This may not be
very helpful, but I have to say I would find it quite impossible to
‘rank’ it, to place it above such and such a set, and below
another. This music is so complex, so very extraordinary that one could
never achieve sincere agreement on the ‘best’ set from the
many fine ones now available. All I can say is that this one is
a major contender, and does full justice to this magnificent symphonist.
And a contrasting view ...
Not bad, three new – and complete – symphony cycles to celebrate
Carl Nielsen’s 150th birthday. First past the post was Alan Gilbert
with the New York Philharmonic (Dacapo), followed by Sakari Oramo and
the Royal Stockholm PO on BIS. Now we have a brand-new set from John
Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic. I’ve assessed both the Gilbert
and Oramo traversals, which I’ve listed and added links to at
the end of this review. A quick search will show there are alternative
views from the likes of John Quinn and Jack Lawson; although our opinions
differ, sometimes quite markedly, we are as one in our passion for these
On the face of it Storgårds’ Nielsen may look less glamorous than
that of his two rivals here, but I was quite impressed by his live performances
broadcast on the BBC's Afternoon on 3 in February 2015. Besides, the
BBC Phil are one of the corporation’s most versatile and consistent
orchestras, and I’m always pleased to hear them. Their Arnold
symphonies and overtures with Rumon Gamba are splendid (review),
as is their Casella series with Gianandrea Noseda (review).
As for Storgårds, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, I
first heard him in Kalevi Aho’s vast and very ambitious Symphony
No. 12 ‘Luosto’. Since then I’ve also sampled
which struck me as decent but not terribly competitive, and - in passing
- his Sibelius.
Of his two main competitors in the Nielsen symphonies Alan Gilbert is
the conductor with the highest profile; he’s also the most hyped,
and that creates very high expectations which can’t always be
met. So it proves; I admired the first instalment in his cycle –
Nos. 2 and 3 – but the subsequent ones were very disappointing.
Incidentally, if you want to see just how much reviewers can differ
here’s Jack Lawson’s response to Gilbert’s Nielsen
5 and 6, which I liked least of all (review).
As for Sakari Oramo I foolishly dismissed his initial foray –
Nos. 4 and 5 – as ‘dispiriting’, adding that these
performances didn’t augur well for the rest of his cycle. I couldn’t
have been more wrong, for while that first shot missed the target the
following ones hit the bull’s eye every time. To paraphrase a
comment in one of Mr Lawson’s other reviews
I’d say Oramo’s Nielsen 2 and 6 are now the finest in the
catalogue – period. That goes for the sound as well, which is
among the best I’ve heard from BIS. I’m less enamoured of
Dacapo’s much-vaunted DXD-sourced recordings which, although exciting
at first, soon came to seem rather synthetic, particularly in the matter
of recorded balances.
Chandos took Storgårds’ Nielsen into the studio soon after a series
of live performances between 2012 and 2015. Logistically that makes
a lot of sense; apart from that the works would be fresh in the minds
of both conductor and orchestra. The first movement
of Symphony No. 1 certainly has plenty of sinew, although
the soundstage isn’t as wide or as deep as that of Oramo’s
First. As a reading it’s quite well structured, with little evidence
of the sudden interventions that mar Gilbert’s account. Storgårds
is very incisive though – unnervingly so at times – and
his dark-toned reading gives the music’s tougher, more brooding
character. Also, the sound is bottom heavy and rather impenetrable,
which drains the piece of essential energy.
The second movement isn’t as revealing as Oramo’s, but then
the Chandos team just don't find much depth or telling detail here.
No, there's far more light and shade to the music than this recording
would have you believe. Alas, it only gets worse. The third movement
is rough and peremptory, with garbled rhythms and relentless tuttis.
As for the finale it has all the finesse of a battering ram. The live
performance isn't much better, but at least the concert hall delivers
a vital, engaging sound that you simply don't get from MediaCity. I
did wonder if Chandos would have achieved more flattering results in
the now demolished Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, the venue for many
of the BBC Phil's finest recordings.
I know I’ve got form when it comes to snap judgments, but I’ll
say it anyway; this really doesn’t augur well for the
rest of the cycle. At least Symphony No. 2 has some
of the sparkle that’s missing from Storgårds’ First. The
recording is a bit more congenial too, with the strings breaking through
the fug at last. Even more welcome is the fact that the music has more
personality, which is especially appropriate in this context. That said,
Storgårds is still too forceful for my tastes – his steroid-enhanced
timps are very off-putting – and that tends to obscure Nielsen’s
more attractive tunes and timbres. Once again the live performance benefits
from a more open and spacious recording.
As its subtitle implies Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3
requires a breadth, a sense of light and air, that Storgårds does manage
to convey in the concert hall. That doesn't come across in the studio,
where Storgårds seems to have an even tighter grip on the reins. Don’t
get me wrong, I like a strong, incisive performance, but I find this
one much too hard driven. I do wish Storgårds would loosen up a bit,
especially as he has a good team of horses between the shafts. His ill-blended
singers are a tad stretched, too. Of the three conductors under consideration
here, Oramo strikes the best balance between firmness and pliancy. He
also creates a compelling narrative, something that Storgårds hints
at in the concert hall but fails to pull off in the studio.
I’ve heard some listeners describe Nielsen as ‘difficult’,
and if these were the first recordings they encountered I’d sympathise.
This music is tough and elemental, but it also brims with character;
it has plenty of colour and rhythmic contrast, too. Other conductors
manage to find all or most of these things, but you won’t hear
much of them in this set. Indeed, listening to these perfromances back
to back simply underlines that lack of variety and conductorial flair.
Alas, the promise of Storgårds’ live Nielsen has not been fulfilled
in the studio. Even then it would be idle to pretend that his readings
rival those of, say, Schmidt,
and 3 ~ 4
and 5 ~ 1
and 6) and Saraste (1
and 2 ~ 5
and 6) when it comes to authority and insight.
After all that the prospect of Symphony No. 4, with
its duelling timps, filled me with dread. Also, does the first note
of this performance catch the engineers off-guard? At least Storgårds
finds a degree of stoicism in the concert hall that eludes him here;
indeed, he seems almost cursory this time around. Given that these recorded
performances tend to be so unyielding – at least they come across
that way – this Fourth is surprisingly flaccid at times. There
should be more tension, notably in that edgy third movement, but without
well-defined contraries there’s no sense of progression. And what
of that much-anticipated battle? A skirmish, merely. Now that is
a surprise, given this conductor's propensity for dramatic overload.
Recently I had cause to celebrate a Chandos recording of Korngold’s
Lieder des Abschieds and Symphony with Ted Downes
and the BBC Phil (review).
Dating from 1992 this gem – recorded in Studio 7, New Broadcasting
House – has all the glow and presence that I associate with the
best of this label’s output. I hear much less of that now, which
is a great shame. In fact this Nielsen set sounds unremittingly hard
and dry; that could be down to the MediaCity acoustic, the recording
itself, or a combination of the two. It also puzzles me that Chandos
didn’t issue this on SACD. they’ve certainly done so with
their other high-profile releases; Ed Gardner’s Janáček (Vol.
1 and Vol.
2), Andrew Davis’s Ives
and Neeme Järvi’s Atterberg
come to mind.
Storgårds’ live account of Symphony No. 5 has
a degree of warmth and spontaneity that I simply cannot detect in this
recording. The BBC Philharmonic winds, so appealing in the concert hall,
just don’t have a chance in the studio. Storgårds is altogether
less congenial than before, and he doesn’t build this symphony
as implacably as his illustrious predecessors do. Yes, there are some
arresting moments in the second movement, but the performance soon modulates
back to the key of dour. Once again the recording doesn't do the performers
any favours. No, you will need to look to Schmidt, Schønwandt and the
to get the full measure of this extraordinary work.
Nielsen’s quirky, even bipolar, Symphony No. 6
is one of the hardest to bring off. As I’ve indicated Oramo does
a splendid job of reconciling its dichotomies and welding them into
a powerfully convincing whole. Comparing his first movement with Storgårds’
puts the latter’s entire recorded cycle in perspective; where
one is keenly felt the other is blunted, and where one has a clear sense
of purpose the other never gets past the preamble. Also, that darkly
obsessive waltz and those martial irruptions count for precious little
here. Oramo? He makes this music leap off the page and give you a good
drubbing; the BIS recording is truly spectacular.
During the course of this review I was also able to
compare these Nielsen performances with those being given by Storgårds
and the BBC Phil at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. In general they seem
more secure in terms of style and purpose, and the Radio 3 engineers
bring out the music's inner voices very well indeed. There are still
some misjudgments though; for instance, No. 6 is more appealing and
eventful this time around, but I'm not sure these qualities are the
right ones in this context. Despite interleaving these symphonies with
Mahler songs the sparse applause suggests the hall was half empty most
nights. Then again concertgoers may have sussed that Storgårds' Nielsen
is still a work in progress.
Returning to this Chandos set I feel the unsympathetic
sound is even more of a drawback than Storgårds' uneven performances.
As if that weren’t bad enough Chandos's download site, theclassicalshop.net,
is very temperamental at the moment. It took me more than an hour to
get these files into my basket; then, as the zip function failed repeatedly
I had to download all 26 tracks individually. The only bright spot in
this whole enterprise is David Fanning’s very full and erudite
Storgårds' Nielsen falls well short of the best; the sound is below
Alan Gilbert (Dacapo)
1 & 4
2 & 3
5 & 6
Sakari Oramo (BIS)
1 & 3
2 & 6
4 & 5