Nielsen Symphonies Nos 4 and 5

Davis turns to Nielsen’s two greatest symphonies with remarkable results

Author: 
David Fanning
Nielsen Symphonies Nos 4 and 5

Nielsen Symphonies Nos 4 and 5 – Davis

  • Symphony No. 4, '(The) inextinguishable'
  • Symphony No. 5

At last! Nielsen’s two best-known symphonies in modern performances with real fire in their belly. I’m not aware that Sir Colin Davis has any pedigree in Nielsen, but what does that matter, when he brings such animal excitement to the task, such a thrilling sense of discovery and existential danger? As a world-leading Berliozian, he knows how to deal with a maverick for whom energy and motion were paramount, and there is an onward thrust to these live accounts that blows away all but the most classic versions (listed above).

Is it all too much? Very nearly so in The Inextinguishable, which clocks in at a remarkably swift 31'21" and has even the LSO playing right at its limits. The problem is certainly not, as it so often is, a lack of daring in the fast music, but rather a certain impatience with the slower passages, especially in the pastoral slow movement itself. That, plus a few obvious misreadings that have to be accepted as part of the live experience, and less-than-ideal balance (turn the volume down near the beginning to tame the timpani and brass and the whole thing loses impact).

The Fifth Symphony goes even better. From the tense apathy of the opening to the anxious triumph of the ending, Davis shows a remarkable instinct for the paradoxical complexity of the moment in Nielsen, as well as for the broader trajectory of his musical thinking. Once again, it is the slower music, here mainly the Andante poco tranquillo fugue in the finale, where greater experience across Nielsen’s oeuvre as a whole would surely have allowed Davis to probe even deeper. But how the LSO strings dig into their rushing unisons through the final pages, and how the whole sound stage seems to catch fire in the process. I have spent so much time carping at modern recorded accounts of Nielsen’s symphonies that I’m not going to withhold a recommendation for advocacy as inspiring as this.

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