NIELSEN Complete Symphonies
‘I still don’t understand how there can be no word for “please” and no phrase for “nice to meet you”,’ chirrups the Liverpudlian girl in my Danish class on an almost weekly basis. Get used to it. Abruptness is as much a part of Danish literature and music as it is built into the nation’s syntax. Nielsen’s first four symphonies barge into being with gestures that might be considered rude outside Denmark, but conductors of all nationalities have a responsibility to underline their grinning gameplay and coruscating contradictions without sweetening the pill.
In that sense, Paavo Järvi is hit and miss. The First Symphony’s opening bars could do with more punch, and the shock of the ‘wrong key’ opening to the symphony’s last movement is…well, not enough of a shock. Järvi’s Second Symphony has an appropriately incendiary opening, but the particle-accelerator thwacks that generate the Third’s momentum could do with more point and precision to compete with Myung-Whun Chung, Bryden Thomson or Herbert Blomstedt. The Fourth’s opening, like a gargantuan can opener ripping into the metal flesh of an oil tanker, could likewise use more wrenching fright and twisting horror.
When Järvi’s good, he’s pretty good. There’s some fascinating revealing of unlikely counterpoints in the Second Symphony (you hear the scurrying strings after that obnoxiously cavorting bass trombone) and the same in the Third (the waltz breakout of the first movement is well balanced but it could do with a little more spontaneity). The finale of Järvi’s Second nicely foreshadows the fissile qualities of the later pieces and the way the tension ratchets up in the opening movement of the Fifth demonstrates his abilities to plot Nielsen’s long narratives as well as Alan Gilbert. His big-boned Sixth Symphony makes the most of all those frantic interruptions and is more poker-faced than Laurel and Hardy. The Frankfurt violins can have a metallic sound, some way off those of Sakari Oramo’s Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in tonal allure, but they’re bang-on in the precision, high-wire passages in this piece. Interplay between tuba, drum, glockenspiel and bass clarinet is charming. In the percussion stakes, Järvi’s cycle wins over all others; its timpanist has thin sticks and uses them fearlessly to create a constantly unsettling, cutting sound across all three discs.
So what’s not to like? As with those occasionally flaccid opening gestures, Järvi can sometimes be tempted to ease back into a sense of Romantic grandeur. Like many others, including Schønwandt and Chung, he initiates a grandstanding (unmarked) rallentando at the end of the Third’s first movement that doesn’t fit with the door-closing endings that are so important in Nielsen’s music and retain such a clear legacy in Danish composition today. Järvi can also drift sometimes. As much as those wound-up moments in the Fourth Symphony are tight and precise – some listeners might feel they could be even more super-charged – the tension remains in this music even when it doesn’t appear to be doing as much but Järvi sometimes allows it to slacken.
To be even more pedantic, those moments when Nielsen’s music breaks out in lyricism have to be imbued with some sense of earthy purity if they’re not to sound cosy and Romantic (which those abrupt openings, combined with Nielsen’s whole aesthetic viewpoint, dictate they shouldn’t). Schønwandt lets his Danish National Symphony Orchestra enjoy them while also playing them pretty straight. Järvi can sometimes appear stuck in the middle; the lyrical breakouts in the Fourth don’t grab you and his strings are a touch too sentimental (at the expense of muscle) in the slow movement of the Third. If a conductor chooses a point on the horizon and maintains focus on it in this flat-landscaped movement, the problem is usually avoided (Chung is superlative here).
Some isolated examples there, and there are more. But there is some fine Nielsen-playing here, even if that last dose of authenticity so vital to this insistent, singular music can evade Järvi and his orchestra on occasion. I’ll return to Järvi’s Second, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and am touched by his German orchestra’s commitment to Nielsen in concert and on record. But my personal top three modern cycles – Oramo, Chung and Schønwandt – remain unchallenged. Few pleasantries there.