RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR
‘Playing it safe in Nielsen’s music is an interpretative non-starter but that doesn’t preclude care and preparation’
Andrew Mellor finds strong allies in Thomas Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in making the case for Nielsen’s early symphonies as essential masterpieces
Nielsen Symphonies – No 1, Op 7a; No 2, ‘The Four Temperaments’, Op 16b Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard Seattle Symphony Media F SSM024 (63’ • DDD) Recorded live at the S Mark Taper Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, aJanuary 30 & February 1, 2019; b April 4, 6 & 7, 2020
Nielsen’s early symphonies aren’t just wellkept secrets; they are essential listening for anyone serious about understanding the composer’s place in 20th-century music.
Symphony No 1 raises eyebrows in musicological circles by dint of its ‘progressive tonality’ – the first work of its kind not to play by the rules on its tonal journey. But the whoops and cheers you hear at the end of this live performance from Seattle aren’t rooted in musicological analysis. They are startled, delighted reactions to the sense of energy, rupture and chaos that punch out of the music – that would infiltrate the composer’s better-known later symphonies but are even more striking here for their almost Mendelssohnian context.
‘Like a child playing with dynamite’, concluded the critic Charles Kjerulf after the symphony’s first performance in 1894 – a compliment, make no mistake. Kjerulf recognised the longterm significance of the symphony’s disruptive organised recklessness, of a new hard-edged Nordic modernism ready to blow the lied-born Germanic style that dominated Scandinavian music out of the water. Nielsen himself wrote to his wife as he prepared to conduct the piece in Dresden: ‘I feel certain that such a piece as this will …open everyone’s ears and eyes to all the gravy and grease you hear in the imitators of Wagner.’
Its successor is the one work in Nielsen’s cycle that steps out of line – which can’t, arguably, be included in a straight trajectory drawn from the First to the Sixth. Its inspiration was an isolated object: a painting spotted in a coaching inn depicting the
28 GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR 2020
ancient Greek notion of the ‘Four Temperaments’ – the idea that human emotions can be grouped into four states or humours. Nielsen and his companions were tickled pink in particular by its depiction of the ‘choleric’ man on horseback, whose ‘eyes were bulging out of his head, his face distorted with rage’, according to the composer, who himself ‘could not help but burst out laughing’ – a note to performers if ever there was one. PHO T O G R A P H Y
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