Paavo Järvi conducts Carl Nielsen’s Six Symphonies (The Four Temperaments; Sinfonia espansiva; The Inextinguishable; Sinfonia semplice) [Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra; RCA]

4 of 5 stars

Symphony No.1 in G minor, FS16/Op.7
Symphony No.2, FS29/Op.16 (The Four Temperaments)
Symphony No.3, FS60/Op.27 (Sinfonia espansiva)
Symphony No.4, FS76/Op.29 (The Inextinguishable)
Symphony No.5, FS97/Op.50
Symphony No.6, FS116 (Sinfonia semplice)

Camilla Tilling (soprano) & Michael Nagy (baritone) [Symphony 3]

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Järvi

Recorded between December 2009 & April 2013 at Kurhaus, Wiesbaden (Symphony 1) and Alter Oper, Frankfurt

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: August 2016
88875178802 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 31 minutes



Paavo Järvi has been a noted ambassador for Scandinavian music. In this RCA release of Carl Nielsen’s Six Symphonies he obtains very stylish playing from his Frankfurt musicians, their clarity and forthrightness being so very suitable for Nielsen’s compositions.

There is though something bland about his presentation of the First Symphony (1892). There is a school of thought which links this work closely to Brahms but whereas there is a certain similarity of structure, Nielsen’s advanced treatment of harmony and key-sequences has already moved the music into the 20th-century.

Lyrical elements of this reading, such as the general warmth of playing and relaxations of tempo when approaching new episodes, make for too much comfort in this ground-breaking composition. The unhurried Andante sounds suitably gentle and the music comes to life in the Allegro comodo which here serves as the equivalent of a Scherzo; the characterful lead into it by bassoon is ear-catching. The Finale sounds too unruffled; this is vivid and challenging music and such comfort is inappropriate.

Nielsen’s sense of humour is a factor that Järvi appreciates. The rustic light-heartedness of much of the Second Symphony (‘The Four Temperaments’) encourages lively playing from the outset. The very relaxed view of the phlegmatic second movement is entirely appropriate and the shock of the momentary loud interruption is splendidly exaggerated. Sadness is the essence of the third movement, but the scurrying presentation of the sanguine Finale suits its optimistic nature.

Those furious, irregular, hammered chords at the start of the ‘Espansiva’ do not make sufficient impact and for a while the timpani are reticent. Breadth of tempo is effective in the opening movement and moves lightly into the quaint waltz-like section, although I am unconvinced by his imposition of a marked slowing for the final bars.

Sensitivity to Nielsen’s genius for idyllic music is one of Järvi’s gifts and the pastoral second movement, which includes subtly-balanced wordless voices, sounds beautiful. Serenity is also a feature of the succeeding Allegretto un poco. The dignified Finale could be a little more thrusting although the playing is notable. There is whim when, shortly before the end, Järvi obeys Nielsen’s instruction to slow for the ultimate return of the main theme, yet he then speeds up causing a loss of majesty.

In the ‘Inextinguishable’ Järvi displays his insight into and sympathy with Nielsen’s art; however it is the lyrical moments that mostly he illumines. This is fiercely dramatic music. Although tension is achieved when leading up to the cataclysmic outbursts in the outer movements, the big moments themselves are not particularly powerful. Nevertheless, the two sets of timpani are widely spaced in the Finale for their duel and Nielsen’s brilliantly imaginative writing is clearly revealed. There is unexpected slowness at the end but this is consistent with Järvi’s slightly romantic approach.

Symphony No.5 is full of tension, even in its quietest instances. In the Adagio section of the first movement, here as track 2, Järvi starts the Adagio section early, at the oboe solo – a suggestion made by Erik Tuxen in his edition – but this is not in Nielsen’s original score. The balance of the snare drum in the extraordinary passage where it assaults the rest of the orchestra is adequate but the instrument is seriously lacking in the upper frequency range: it hammers but it does not snarl.

The second movement has a track division at the start of the Andante un poco tranquillo, just after the flutes have accented the downbeats rather than making the required gradual fade. Järvi’s tempo for this hushed restatement of the main theme is extraordinarily slow but convincing nevertheless and the build-up to the triumphant ending is very exciting. The work ends with a Järvi trademark – the sustaining of the final chord for an extended amount of time, which is very effective.

Perhaps it is unfair to describe Nielsen’s bitterly-comic second movement as the most memorable part of Järvi’s interpretation of No.6 since it was a bizarre notion of the composer to include it, yet its presence certainly makes sense and Järvi details every strange enunciation within it. There is also great power in the tragic latter parts of the opening movement and the strings are magnificent in the sweeping dissonances of the third, ‘Proposta seria’.

The phrasing in the Finale is very careful; ideas are shaped meaningfully note by note. This is a daring procedure but it works and the dissonant dance sequence in ¾-time is also fashioned in a personal manner. By the end Järvi appears to have found the solution to expressing fully the nature of this puzzling piece, and like John Storgårds in his excellent Chandos set makes sense of Nielsen’s strange conclusion where the bassoons, which at first lie beneath the flourishes by flute and clarinet, are finally left exposed.

These performances contain much interpretative insight. Järvi’s discerning view of Nielsen’s music resembles that of Alan Gilbert (on Dacapo), who is also very expressive. There is not the earthy power and conviction of Storgårds’s readings, nevertheless Paavo Järvi displays a thorough understanding of Nielsen’s music and reveals many a detail that escapes other conductors. The total timings printed in the booklet for each CD are incorrect; the overall playing time is 3 hours 31 minutes.

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