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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1-6
PERFORMER: Gillian Keith (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone); BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds


It’s fascinating to hear Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies in quick succession. They all sound like manifestations of the same volatile personality, but gaining in confidence in their radical rethinking of the concept of the symphony towards the Fifth, a masterpiece of the 20th century, and with the enigmatic Sixth as coda.

In much of this cycle, issued to coincide with Nielsen’s 150th anniversary, John Storgårds’s approach is thoughtful. Fast movements, such as begin the Third and Fourth, sound measured and lacking in Nielsen’s reckless forward drive. Slow movements are more convincing: that of the Fourth, with its alternation of plainchant-like declamation and solemn chorales, comes across as a deeply personal episode of spiritual questioning. Any reservations are dispelled by a masterly reading of the Fifth, moving sure-footedly from its opening sterility through successive crises to final affirmation.


The BBC Philharmonic players respond to their principal guest conductor superbly: the woodwind with well-characterised phrasing, notably clarinettist John Bradbury in the Fifth; the strings with perfect discipline in Nielsen’s challenging outbursts. The Chandos recording maintains clear internal balance throughout – although the vocal parts in the Third, impersonally delivered as they should be, sound a little too far forward. But when the brass and timpani are loud, as often in the earlier symphonies, they seem to overload the orchestra’s Salford studio: a contrast with the wide open spaces afforded the San Francisco Symphony in Herbert Blomstedt’s late-1980s cycle on Decca. That remains a prime recommendation, yet Storgårds’s offers outstanding playing and a consistent personal view. Anthony Burton