On the technological side of things here, the one aspect that sets this cycle of the Nielsen symphonies apart from all the others I'm aware of is the inclusion of a fourth disc, a Blu-ray audio-only disc, which contains all the performances that are housed on the three companion SACDs. I think this is a very worthwhile feature, not least because it is only slightly more costly than if you purchased the three SACDs separately. On the artistic side, we have Sir Colin Davis recording the Nielsen symphonies for the first time, beginning the project after he had turned eighty-two years of age! The symphonies were recorded in Barbican Centre, London between October, 2009 and December, 2011. Davis died in April, 2013; thus, this cycle undeniably represents some of his most important later work.
Davis was often associated with the music of Berlioz, Tippett and Sibelius. Because of his acclaimed recordings of Sibelius' orchestral works, including two cycles of the symphonies, you might think he would naturally have shown an interest in Nielsen's symphonies throughout his career. That wasn't the case, of course. In Sibelius Davis tended to employ moderate to deliberate tempos, but in Nielsen his tempos are generally quite lively, sometimes very brisk as is the case with #4, "The Inextinguishable." This is probably going to be the one controversial interpretation here, primarily because of the swiftness of the performance. To give you some perspective on this, let me cite some timings of other recordings of the Fourth from my collection: Leonard Bernstein/Sony – 40:12; Herbert von Karajan/DG – 38:26; Michael Schønwandt/dacapo & Naxos – 36:28; Adrian Leaper/Naxos – 36:28; Herbert Blomstedt/Decca – 36:12; Sakari Oramo/Bis – 35:15; Mehta/Decca – 33:20; and Igor Markevitch/Turnabout – 32:45. Davis clocks in at 31:13! Only Markevitch comes somewhat close, but you'll find that most recordings will be around the 35:00 mark or slightly above. Thus, this might be termed a fasten-your-seat-belt rendition of this great symphony.
But much to my surprise, Davis makes a convincing case for his unusually brisk approach: where other conductors take a ponderous or profound view of certain passages or even whole movements, Davis typically imparts vitality and excitement, seeing the work very much in the spirit of what Nielsen said he was expressing in the symphony: "Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable." There is a feeling of defiance and determination in Davis' reading, as well as a headlong sense of purpose. At any rate, some listeners will regard his tempos, especially in the first movement, as too fast. But this is quite an effective reading on its own precipitate terms, not least because the LSO plays brilliantly throughout.
The Fifth is one of the better performances of this unusual masterpiece too. To my ears few, if any conductors have ever made the big buildup in the latter part of the first movement work convincingly: as most of the orchestra (peace) struggles desperately against the disruptive snare drum (war), the resolution that comes when the noble peace theme finally tames the snare drum can sound too sudden or, worse, almost anticlimactic. But Davis gives the music a real sense of desperation: this struggle is for dear life here and things seem teetering on the brink of collapse as that nagging snare is unrelentingly savage until we finally arrive at definitive victory, which quickly evolves into serenity. The long second movement is just as convincing, topping off what has now become my favorite Nielsen Fifth recording. Bravo!
The other Nielsen symphonies are not quite on the same artistic level of the popular Fourth and Fifth, though the Third and Sixth come close. Davis turns in solid performances of both, with the darkly humorous, rather arid and somewhat cynical Sixth given a very witty and spirited performance. Here, however, his tempo selections are rather moderate; appropriately so as the more transparent orchestration needs some breathing room to come across effectively. The Third is an epic work and Davis gives it a muscular and at times rather driven approach that, once again, works splendidly here. The first movement development section climaxes in a rather more joyful and exotic mood than is usual. The wordless vocal parts in the second movement are sung nicely by soprano Lucy Hall and baritone Marcus Farnsworth.
The two early Nielsen symphonies are not weak or ineffective works by any means, but are a step down from #3 and 6 and perhaps a couple of ranks below #4 & 5. But Davis gives them both the full measure of care, and turns out splendid, well played performances. He rightly finds more depth and substance in the Second, but both come across as bright and rather youthful works.
The sound reproduction on both the SACD and Blu-ray formats is very good throughout the set, though there is a small caveat here: Barbican Concert Hall is known to be a difficult venue for acoustics and on these recordings the strings sometimes sound scrawny, particularly in the Fourth Symphony, while brass and other wind instruments, as well as percussion, come across with plenty of punch. Still, the sound is far more than adequate to enjoy this immensely vital and well played collection of these six works. There are other very persuasive cycles by Blomstedt (twice), Schønwandt and others. This one by Sir Colin Davis should hold its place among the competition as one of the better and more imaginative sets of the Nielsen symphonies. Highly recommended!
Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings