NIELSEN: Symphonies: No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7; No. 4, Op. 29 “Inextinguishable.”

NIELSEN: Symphonies: No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7; No. 4, Op. 29 “Inextinguishable.”Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. CHANDOS CHAN-9260 [DDD]; 74:17. Produced by Brian Couzens

In discussions of Carl Nielsen’s symphonies, No I is often patronized as a work of apprenticeship, written in the shadow of central-European mid-nineteenth-century models. I think this view is shallow to the point of inaccuracy. Yes, the composer clearly followed Brahms and Dvorak as formal models, but much more salient to the work’s identity is its revelation of a strikingly original voice and temperament, evident from the instant it begins. The Nielsen character is worlds apart from the sensuality, textural viscosity, and psychological ambivalence of the post-Wagnerians, as well as from the weighty sobriety of the symphonic conservatives mentioned above, and even from the meandering ruminations of his contemporary Sibelius. Its leanness, vigor, and dynamism place Nielsen’s music much closer to the spirit of Beethoven than to that of others nearer to his age, while a rustic whimsy produced by quirky modal inflections around the third and seventh scale steps lends an infectious idiosyncratic flavor. These qualities produce the freshly exuberant and exhilarating personality that is unmistakable as Nielsen’s and is fully present in the 1892 Symphony No. 1, a work that in its entirety is actually more fully realized than either No. 2 or No. 3 (despite the ecstatic affirmation of the glorious first movement of the latter).

As its subtitle suggests, the Symphony No. 4, “Inextinguishable” (1914-16), takes on an ambitious challenge: “to describe all that has the will and the urge for life, which cannot be kept down.”   The music bursts forth with an explosion of energy as if kindled by a lightning bolt, leaving in its wake some of the most convincingly life-affirming music ever written. However, there are some formidable interpretive challenges as well: the burst of energy that launches the work is very difficult to sustain, especially because along with transcendental moments of exaltation, there are also some stretches that are less interesting and rather workman-like Ultimately, the symphony seems to be straining for a triumphant grandeur that is beyond its reach. Various performances have sought to cope with these problems in different ways.

In addressing these two symphonies, Gennady Rozhdestvensky seems to be attempting to bring them closer to — or perhaps to underline their connections to — the warm, expansivegem├╝tlichkeit of Brahms. In so doing, he calls forth some very fine playing from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, producing a rich, full string sound, and giving serious, deliberate attention to nuances of phrasing. This approach, along with the opening of a conventionally observed cut in the last movement, makes a much larger work of the First Symphony than one usually perceives, while toning down the violent undercurrents of the Fourth.   If one wishes to consider such a view of these works, then these are fine, well-executed performances. But I think that Rozhdestvensky is going against the nature of the music and his readings are not what these pieces are about. In listening to some other recent performances, I find the economically-priced complete set of Nielsen Symphonies on BIB CD-614/616), featuring the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Myung-Whun Chung (in Nos I et al.) and Neeme Jarvi (in Nos. 4 and 6) to be comparably polished, but more idiomatically interpreted, and strongly recommended. Paavo Berglund’s renditions of Nos. 1 and 4 with the Royal Danish Orchestra RCA Victor 7701-2-RC) are good, but a little too tight-lipped and driven, overlooking the warmth and playfulness that are also essential to this music. Furthermore the orchestral sound on that recording lacks depth and fullness of sonority.