Nielsen: Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable); Symphony No. 5

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Nielsen
LABELS: Dacapo
WORKS: Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable); Symphony No. 5
PERFORMER: Danish RSO/Michael Schønwandt
CATALOGUE NO: 8.224156
Symphonies do not come more elementally exciting than Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth, and I can never tire of hearing them. Michael Schønwandt’s new recordings combine seething energy with a shadowy underlay, drawing the ear to their inner melancholy. In the Fourth, the second movement has a gentle grace, the climax of the Andante is swinging, slow and with a true sense of ‘arrival’; the fourth movement seems at times lost in thought. The Fifth’s Adagio is beautifully sustained, and has a yearning dignity, the ravishing tunes never self-consciously strained, despite the sinister interruptions of clarinet and drums. Schønwandt keeps the two forces in some kind of balance in this key drama of destruction. But his stately tempo for the subsequent Allegro neutralises its innate instability. By comparison, Blomstedt’s 1988 Fifth Symphony Allegro with the San Francisco SO breaks like a tumultuous wave, and the famous Adagio is a nail-biting thriller, the snare drummer drowning out the orchestra, which rises up in almost hysterical defiance. Blomstedt’s readings are overall pitched at a more intense level: there is a shrillness to the recorded sound – Schønwandt’s is more natural, and distant – the playing is edgy and precise, the pace more confident. This is perfect in the opening of The Inextinguishable’s Allegro, where strings are electric and brass crackles, while the Danish strings tend to swim about at a slower tempo.

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Nielsen once wrote that ‘the only thing that music in the final analysis can express [is] the resting powers as opposed to the active ones.’ Schønwandt’s recordings unearth the resting powers from out of the tumult of these dynamic works and balance them against the active. The results are sometimes more affecting and thought-provoking. But in the end, the blazing candour of Blomstedt’s performances better communicate the symphonies’ surging life-force. Helen Wallace