Carl Nielsen's mature symphonies have been well represented on disc. Considering the Fourth, for example, the listener can choose between Leonard Bernstein's searing account for CBS, Bryden Thomson's more sober approach
, and Herbert Blomstedt's excellent Decca recording
, all with very good sound. And for the Fifth, there's Bernstein again, in a classic recording that helped popularize Nielsen's music in the States, as well as Blomstedt and a handful of others. The Danes, however, have begun reclaiming Nielsen as their own, first rereleasing some historic recordings
performed by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and now a digital series with essentially the same organization conducted by Michael Schønwandt, who has returned to the manuscript sources for a somewhat more authentic Nielsen than we're used to hearing. But instead of offering the musicology lesson of the scholar-conductor, Schønwandt has recorded these symphonies in a way that, for sheer power, conviction, and natural presence, will delight Nielsen lovers and become the definitive versions for years to come.
Schønwandt persuades us to rethink some earlier recordings' excesses. He takes the composer's antiromanticism at his word ("A harp in the orchestra is a like a hair in the soup," Nielsen once remarked), but retains his ferocity and speed. The energy of this Fourth, the "inextinguishable" quality of life and art that it embodies, easily overpowers the score's occasional darkness and distress. But will we ever hear the battle of the timpani performed more fearsomely? The same goes for the snare drum's attempts to disrupt the narrative flow of the Fifth, which ultimately transcends discord. Nielsen responded to the brutality of the early 20th century by reaffirming the primacy of the creative force. Schønwandt's disc serves that purpose to the ultimate degree. --Robert Burns Neveldine