CARL NIELSEN: Symphonies 4 & 5 – London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis – LSO Live LSO0694 multichannel SACD, 66:38 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Carl Nielsen’s Fourth (1914-16) and Fifth (1921-22) Symphonies are two of the greatest symphonic works of the twentieth century. Both reflect the disturbing influence of World War I on the composer. But the overriding message is one of hope – human beings eventually overcoming the struggle against darkness. By using progressive tonality (ending in a different key than the beginning), polytonality (the simultaneous use of two keys), Nielsen creates a sense of momentum, drama and expressivity that departs from the late Romantic tradition without losing its emotional impact. His use of percussion (the dueling timpani in the Fourth Symphony) creates a striking dramatic effect and he uses the power of silence as a theatrical punctuation. In the end, it’s Nielsen’s passionate view of mankind’s positive presence that touches the emotions.
In the Fourth Symphony, Nielsen, in a preface to the score, says that he “has endeavored to indicate in one word what music alone is capable of expressing to the full: The Elemental Will of Life.” Colin Davis isn’t especially known for dramatic interpretations, but with this release he captures the drama inherent in the Fourth Symphony to stunning effect. The thrilling opening is punctuated by the powerful presence of the timpani, a bit too prominent in the orchestral context. Individual solos are beautifully performed and the climax at the end of the movement is dramatically effective. The delicate nature of the second movement has a dance-like charm to it – a welcome break from the tumult that preceeded it – yet the mystery of this movement isn’t overlooked. There’s a sense of monumentality in the climax of the third movement, and the stillness of the oboe and high strings leads to a titanic beginning of the last movement. The conflict between the timpani and the rest of the orchestra is beautifully judged, and a sense of hope ultimately prevails. This performance is the equal of the great Chicago Symphony/Martinon performance but in better sound on SACD.
Of his Fifth Symphony, Nielsen said, “our work is a continual protest against the thoughts of death and an appeal to and a cry for life.” The overriding context is the struggle between evil and the human spirit. Davis understands the anger, anxiety and wayward motion of the first part of the first movement: the militaristic use of the side drum does a devil’s dance with the woodwinds and strings. In the second part of the first movement, suddenly the violas croon a melody as beautiful as any, but the conductor relaxes the tempo excessively, lessening the contrast and impact. The chaos of the timpani returns at full force and then at a distance, maintaining the unsettled mood. The second movement begins quickly, leading to a fugue of menacing proportions. Davis gets the mood, but I miss the unadulterated frenzy of the 1954 performance of Thomas Jensen and the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Davis stops the orchestra briefly before the last chord, an effect that gives an exclamation point to the performance.
The SACD sound offers superb depth and a wide soundstage that effectively conveys the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance. This is an excellent disc to add to your Nielsen collection or to discover this wonderful composer.
— Robert Moon