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Briefly Noted: Luisi's Nielsen Cycle

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C. Nielsen, Symphonies 1/3, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, F. Luisi

(released on December 9, 2022)
DG 00028948634781 | 1h13

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Symph. 4/5
Fabio Luisi was appointed principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 2017, and his contract in Copenhagen has been extended through at least 2026. The Italian conductor's first recording project with the ensemble, the principal orchestra sponsored by DR (the Danish Broadcasting Corporation), is a complete cycle of the six symphonies of Carl Nielsen. Ionarts has been delighted to take account of the music of Denmark's pre-eminent composer, including the string quartets, piano music, chamber music and even opera. In live performance one is most likely to encounter his symphonies, especially the Fourth ("The Inextinguishable"), last heard from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 2013 and the NSO in 2020, and the Fifth, heard from the NSO in 2011. Others, like the Second, are more rare.

Not surprisingly, the first installment of this cycle combined Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, released this past October. The dividing line between Nielsen's first three symphonies and his last three is World War I, with the first three symphonies composed roughly between 1890 and 1911, and the Fourth begun in 1914. While hardly juvenilia, the First Symphony was premiered around Nielsen's 30th birthday. It is already representative in some ways of his mature style, ending in a different key than it opens, a device eventually known as "progressive tonality."

With obvious influence from earlier symphonic composers, however, it is also rather conventional by Nielsen's standards: in four traditional movements with fairly standard orchestration. He completed it while working as a violinist in the Royal Chapel Orchestra (now styled the Royal Danish Orchestra), which premiered the First Symphony, with the composer playing in the second violin section. Luisi's interpretation of the First is more expansive than Neeme Järvi's version with the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon), closer in pacing to Blomstedt's recording with the San Francisco Symphony (Decca) -- interpretations likely shaped by Blomstedt's tenure as the first to be named the Danish NSO's principal conductor, from 1967 to 1977 -- and Michael Schønwandt's classic cycle with the Danish NSO (Dacapo, re-released by Naxos). Even more luxuriant in the middle movements, Luisi's tempo choices bring out the best of the ensemble's woodwind and string sound. A brass player in his youth, among other instruments, Nielsen knew how to marshal a brass-fueled crescendo, and the Danish NSO responds to Luisi's sculpting with sensitivity.

Every symphonic composer after Beethoven had a different reaction to the incorporation of singers in their symphonies. Nielsen wrote parts for voices only in his Third Symphony, a brief section of the second movement for baritone and soprano soloists, although without any words and therefore more like instruments. (In fact, in the score, Nielsen specifies that these parts may instead be performed by a fourth clarinet and fourth trombone.) The orchestration is augmented from the First, with three of each woodwind type, including doubling players on English horn and contrabassoon, plus a part for tuba. The "expansive" first movement, whose tempo marking gives the symphony its moniker, sounds like it easily could have been studied by John Williams, who has always imitated the best. As with the First, Luisi opts for more space in the tempo choices, especially in the serene slow movement, with fine vocal contributions from Palle Knudsen and Fatma Said, parts intertwined over a long pedal note with touches of Wagner and Strauss.

This cycle is just one of several to appear in recent years, with Nielsen's star on the rise: Paavo Järvi with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony (RCA), Ole Schmidt and the London Symphony Orchestra (Alto), Colin Davis also with the LSO (LSO Live), and Osmo Vänskä with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BIS), among others. Perhaps the main competition could have been the cycle begun by Thomas Dausgaard with the Seattle Symphony, likely left incomplete following the Danish conductor's abrupt resignation from that orchestra early this year, before the Fifth or Sixth Symphony was released. Perhaps their new music director will complete the cycle, but no appointment has been announced yet. Luisi has the benefit of recording the symphonies with the orchestra that was the first ever to record a Nielsen symphony and has a long history with his music. The entire cycle will reportedly be released as a box set during the Carl Nielsen Festival this coming spring.

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