Half a bar of Carl Nielsen and you know it’s him - a characteristic of great composers down the ages, to be sure, but one peculiarly concentrated around nationalist composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nationalist, not necessarily through any political affiliation but because they sought to renew both the standard musical forms and genres, and their own country’s culture, with bold and fresh attempts to marry the two. Indeed, Nielsen was so successful at this (like Sibelius in Finland), that for decades afterwards he seemed to cast a shadow over those who came after.
The symphonies lie at the centre of Nielsen’s achievement. They develop as he did, from exuberant Romanticism (No.1), through rangy melodies and ‘visionary’ slow movements (Nos 2 and 3), to an unquenchable embrace of the heroic struggle that places Man at the centre of his world (Nos 4 and 5), finally to rest in a quizzical re-examination of all that we hold worthwhile in mind and music (No.6, the ‘Sinfonia semplice’: never was a symphony more ironically named). Each symphony sets off on its own exciting journey, and the demands Nielsen makes on his participants are extreme - he was a fine violinist himself, and he used his extensive knowledge to turn string players inside out with ferocious fugues and precipitous runs.
Many great orchestras have tackled this music, and some have ended up making it into little more than concertos for orchestra in all but name. Not, however, this apparently less glittering ensemble. David Hurwitz, famously hard to please, is unequivocal in his Classics Today review: 'Theodore Kuchar leads what is without question the most exciting complete Nielsen symphony cycle available, making this the set to get for Nielsen newcomers'.
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