John Storgårds takes a very positive view of Carl Nielsen’s six great Symphonies. They vary widely – from the classical outline of the First to the sometimes bitter modernity of the Sixth, but this conductor ensures that the music always surges confidently forward – an ideal approach to these often life-affirming compositions. A sense of drive is achieved consistently although tempos are more moderate than those that are sometimes heard, which forcefully displays the inner strength of Nielsen’s outlook.
Symphony No.1 (1892) can sometimes be performed in a manner that suggests a late-romantic work but Storgårds stresses the classical structure and brings out the striking use of harmonies which seem advanced for their time (a few years before the death of Brahms, and a dozen before that of Dvořák). There are moments requiring care in interpretation: instructions such as Assai più vivo or tranquillo, or poco rit abound, and sometimes in the later works too, but none of this should be taken as permission to alter the underlying pulse. Storgårds is well aware of this and strictly obeys Nielsen’s instructions to return to tempo primo when so required. The sense of continuity is particularly evident in the third movement where Nielsen constructs this Allegro comodo in a very individual way and after the repeat of the long opening sequence an Andante sandwiches the return of the first section with the themes played in reverse order: the composer pays homage to sonata-form but bends it to his personal vision. The fierce finale ends this G-minor work in the intriguingly unrelated key of C-major. A field day for analysts!
Symphony No.2 (The Four Temperaments, 1902) is inspired by pictures that Nielsen encountered in a country inn. The music is representation of the feelings evoked in the composer by these comic and curious illustrations. Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine; are enshrined by the tempo markings at the head of each movement. There can be no doubt about the choleric nature of the first movement – the precise recorded balance gives personality to each of the instruments – the definition of the timpani is ideal and incorporate thematic content. Storgårds lets the music speak clearly and avoids hastening when dramatic effects arise. The phlegmatic second movement flows lazily forward; it evokes a feeling of a sultry summer afternoon in the Danish countryside. The deeply melancholic atmosphere of the slow movement is convincingly achieved and finds Storgårds employing a tempo not nearly so broad as the one he adopted in a recent broadcast with the BBCP. The finale is fiercely joyful. I am often reserved about the way in which the final section is played. This happy, march-like ending is marked Marziale and it is given the indication ‘Tempo 1’. Storgårds does indeed revert to the original tempo but it is only just slow enough to avoid a sense of triviality – other conductors are less dignified and let the music hurry further as the final bars approach.
Choice of tempo is also significant in ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ (1911). Here the breadth of the opening movement is ideal and the critical moment after the first sequence where the timpani echo the rhythm of the aggressive opening chords is as clear as could be. The complex start to the soon-to-be abandoned fugue finds the string detail superbly in focus. It is good to hear such unhurried elegance and the sweeping rhythm of the waltz-like episode is a delight. To use voices as instruments in the second-movement Andante pastorale is a daring notion. It is essential that the listener is aware of an unusual colour without it seeming obvious that distant singers are providing it. Here there is a gentle melding of the voices, and very effective. The amiable Allegretto – more an intermezzo – is notable for interesting balancing, the bassoon as loud as the oboe which has the main melody: this reveals harmonies that the ear does not usually catch. In this work an expansive approach makes sense but I am not always comfortable the finale. Of course such a wonderfully grand and optimistic melody should be made noble. I remember being much taken aback with Leonard Bernstein’s lumbering version. Nielsen asks for minim = 76, achieved only by Erik Tuxen in his 1946 Decca recording. Fortunately Storgårds takes the same powerful thrusting approach.
In his booklet note David Fanning gives excellent analyses of the Symphonies and is correct to describe Symphony No.4 (1916) in particular detail. This life-asserting work is central to Nielsen’s philosophy: “Music is life and, like life, unquenchable”. ‘Det Uudslukkelige’ is fully explored and ‘The Inextinguishable’ is as near an approximation as we can get in English. Storgårds drives firmly into the powerful opening, but despite the enormous tumult detail remains clear. Although there is much fury, there is space for even greater display of force, using similar thematic material, which finally sums up the work. Storgårds takes the listener calmly through the Poco allegretto and even the following Poco adagio is less anguished than usual but the finale is a real awakening. The amazing entry of the second set of timpani has a terrifying effect. Spaced well away from each other, the drums have slightly differing timbres and this is ideal. Despite the tumult every melodic line remains clear; how easy it would have been to degenerate into mere noise but Storgårds’s intense definition of every theme illuminates this extraordinary finale in a way I have never heard before. Try it on headphones – it is an amazing experience.
Percussion is also important in Symphony No.5 (1922), celesta, gently-struck cymbals and side-drum joining timpani as important players in the drama. The subtlety of the transparent scoring in the menacing opening pages is enlightening. The cymbals which underlie the fearsome shadows do not hinder the path of progress. The star-billing is for side drum and clarinet. In the latter pages of the first movement the former is entirely free to improvise “as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra” (Nielsen). More edge to the snares would have made the drummer’s suitably aggressive contribution more effective, but the lovely clarinet solo that follows the chaos is most sensitive. Drive without hurry is the essence of the second movement, excellent brass here and full rein is given to timpani and clarinet in their mid-movement moments of madness. The score used avoids the revisions of tempo, watering down of dynamics and even alterations of orchestration imposed in Tuxen’s 1950 edition which seems at last to have fallen out of favour.
Perhaps too much time has been spent eliciting the inner meaning of ‘Sinfonia semplice’ (1925). Although Fanning is colourfully descriptive, he does not follow those who try to make the work appear programmatic in the light of troubled times for the composer. As Nielsen said: “this Symphony has nothing whatsoever to do with my states of mind. What I experience in my life never directly affects my music.” In the first movement Storgårds sets off on this enigmatic journey almost cheerfully and which has parallels with the equivalent in No.5 including a noble theme and a descent into chaos, save there is no comforting resolution. The ferocious, anguished section two-thirds the way through details every fierce entry and contrasting colouration. For the sarcastic music that follows, the interpretation is simple and straightforward: there is so much quirkiness here that nothing need be added. (Perhaps the exceptional violence of the snare drum might usefully have also been evident in the Fifth Symphony.) I enjoyed the out-of-rhythm bassoons and the slurping glissandos of the trombones – Nielsen stepping outside his usual personality. True seriousness is to be found in the disturbing slow movement which is naturally paced and includes suitably passionate string-playing. This leaves us with the challenging and perhaps worrying set of variations that represents the finale. The varying moods flow into one another as they gradually become more tragic with the waltz desperately trying to make itself heard against the instruments that mock it. Ultimately the orchestra stops while leaving bassoons holding on loudly to the lowest note of the final chord, which I hear as affirmation that all is firm and stable after all.
Throughout, Storgårds imposes nothing wilful and clarity of detail is remarkable, especially in violent eruptions. This set is outstandingly well-engineered by Stephen Rinker and is an exceptionally fine representation of the Symphonies of Carl Nielsen. The BBC Philharmonic has done the composer proud and John Storgårds gives some of the most perceptive performances of these great works that I have ever heard.