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 Recording of the Week  Nielsen Symphonies from Colin Davis and the LSO

After the more general newsletters over the holiday period it is great to have the opportunity to get stuck into some real repertoire again this week and, thanks to a terrific new recording from the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis, I’ve got Nielsen’s 4th and 5th Symphonies to tell you about today.

Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen

Born in 1865, composer Carl Nielsen was the seventh of twelve children from a poor but musical talented family raised on the Danish island of Funen. His parents were both amateur musicians and the young Carl learned the violin, piano and various brass instruments. He went on to study violin at the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen before gaining a position in the second violins in the prestigious Royal Danish Orchestra. He remained in the orchestra for sixteen years while establishing himself as a composer, but also taught and later conducted as well for a living.

In Denmark, Nielsen has been a hugely significant figure ever since his lifetime, and Danish children are still taught many of his songs at school. Abroad it was only after World War II that his reputation started to develop with recordings like those of the symphonies by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic particularly significant. Indeed these days Nielsen is probably best known for his six symphonies, and of those I’d say that the 4th and 5th are the best, so if you’re new to the composer this new disc really is a good place to start.

Nielsen’s symphonies are full of dramatic tension, with the brass instruments frequently to the fore. The fourth symphony, subtitled ‘The Inextinguishable’ was written during the First World War. Nielsen’s faith in humanity had suffered something of a setback by the war with what he described as the ‘senseless hate’ and horrors which men could inflict on each other. In this symphony Nielsen tries to represent his belief that ultimately ‘music is life, and like it, inextinguishable’. It is a hugely powerful work which ends with the main theme from the first movement returning and triumphing over onslaughts from two sets of timpani set at opposite sides of the stage. The Fifth symphony is equally dramatic and portrays a similar battle between the forces of order and chaos. The music is always direct, dynamic and lyrical and hugely rewarding to listen to.

Although Sir Colin Davis says he has been an admirer of the music of Carl Nielsen for many years, he has rarely conducted any of his works. It is something of a surprise therefore to suddenly find him embarking on a complete symphony cycle at the age of 83, but as recent concert reviews suggested he is born for this music, conducting with a vitality and excitement which belies his age. The orchestra play with a warmth and depth of tone offering just the right amount of edge to the sound. He will conduct the remaining symphonies this year, with two further LSO Live releases following in 2012.

A great start to the year!

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC