Nielsen: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Symphonies Nos 4 (The Inextinguishable) & 5
PERFORMER: London SO/Colin Davis


Nielsen is so much more complicated than he initially appears. As he got older he grew more broad-minded, and the compass of his musical style and thought extended. Who else could have followed the neo-Brahmsian lyricism at the heart of the Fifth Symphony’s first movement with jagged brass dissonances and a crazily improvised side drum cadenza?

The personality too is paradoxical. A concentrated Beethovenian energy propels the argument of the Fourth, and yet the vistas are always changing: geo-tectonic convulsions one moment, cosy, if slightly mischievous Danish pastoral the next. It isn’t until you hear performances as good as these two that you realise how Shakespearean Nielsen is – the spiritual antithesis of his elementally single-minded Finnish contemporary Sibelius. 

Colin Davis has Osmo Vänskä’s rigour and intensity, but a greater range of human expression. He matches Herbert Blomstedt when it comes to grandeur and sense of the long evolving line, and yet the music also seems so fluid and changeable, and alive on so many levels.


Full marks to Davis, too, sustaining the momentum through the finale’s Adagio fugue in No. 5, and for noting that Nielsen actually says get faster, not slower, when the big tune comes back at the end of No. 4 – it changes the whole nature of these closing pages, blasting any charge of bombast out of the water. Credit too for using the new critical editions of both scores. There are one or two surprises when it comes to orchestration, but at no point are you likely to feel that Nielsen’s thoughts needed revision. The live recording comes across well – especially in SACD. Stephen Johnson