As hardly anyone needs to be reminded now, this year brings us the sesquicentenaries of the births of Northern Europe’s two greatest symphonists, Finland’s Jean Sibelius and Denmark’s Carl Nielsen. While this enables us to roll out the mellifluous words sesquicentenary and sesquicentennial, it is illuminating to recall at this point the plain old centennial observances of 50 years ago.

Carl Nielsen

At that time, Sibelius’s popularity had waxed and waned and waxed again in various parts of the world, but his music had established itself more firmly than ever as something of permanence and of unfading significance. Finland remains the only country personified to the world by a musician. Neither Nielsen nor any other composer is likely to match that, but Nielsen’s earlier status as a regional phenomenon has definitely and irreversibly changed, and we are all very much richer for it. We can thank the cultural establishments in the Nordic countries for nurturing their shared treasures. The young Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling recorded all the Sibelius symphonies in Stockholm well before any Finn essayed an “integral” set (Anthony Collins and the London SO were the next in line), and, while the first Nielsen recordings were made in Copenhagen, under Danish conductors, Finnish conductors proved to be more conspicuously active than any others in performing and recording the entire cycle of the Danish master’s symphonies: six Finns have done this so far, all of them on a clearly exalted level.

By now such details are far less striking than they may have seemed 50 years ago. It was about then that Nielsen’s music came out of its parochial shell, so to speak, simply by being taken up and recorded by conductors who were not Danish. It was in that centennial year, 1965, that Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Nielsen’s Third Symphony -- the Sinfonia espansiva -- with the Royal Danish Orchestra was released by Columbia Records. Bernstein then went on to record more Nielsen in New York, and numerous other conductors outside the Scandinavian circle became similarly active, some recording two or three symphonies, some just one each. Among the names in this column are those of Sir John Barbirolli, Igor Markevitch, Rafael Kubelík, Eugene Ormandy, Jean Martinon, Herbert von Karajan, Jascha Horenstein, Zubin Mehta, André Previn, Morton Gould and Siegfried Landau. And the “integral cycles” started to appear on LP, under the likes of the Dane Ole Schmidt (with the London SO on Unicorn, available now on the Alto label) and the Swede Herbert Blomstedt (who has given us two such cycles: one from Copenhagen for EMI, a more splendid one later from San Francisco on Decca).

The “integral cycle” is not exactly a new phenomenon in the world of recordings, but it has become a more omnipresent one over the years, to the point that any recording of a Nielsen or Sibelius symphony (or, for that matter, a Mahler or Bruckner or Brahms or Dvoƙák or Schubert or Beethoven or Shostakovitch or Vaughan Williams symphony) now is regarded as a harbinger of another complete set, and that notion is quickly verified. There are some psychological differences in the expectations raised by such sets that are different from those attendant upon the release of a single symphony or a pair by any of these composers. Some of us may feel that the intrinsic value of the individual work is somehow compromised in the concept of the “integral” presentation; some others, I’m sure, may feel the reverse -- and for still others, there is no difference at all.

This no doubt fiercely important concern may be addressed in a suitable academic setting in a galaxy far away, but the “integral” concept seems to work for Nielsen, simply because virtually all the recordings made of his symphonies so far have been so very persuasive. Let’s pause here for a moment for a note about these symphonies. While Sibelius wrote a great deal of descriptive music, he is on record as telling Gustav Mahler that he did not believe in “programmatic” symphonies: he was concerned about form and structural integrity. Nielsen, on the other hand, was very much concerned, as a symphonist, with humanity, emotion, humor, and idealism, as indicated by the titles he appended to some of his symphonies. The six are:

No.1, Op.7
No.2, The Four Temperaments, Op.16
No.3, Sinfonia espansiva, Op.27
No.4, The Inextinguishable, Op.29
No.5, Op.50
No.6, Sinfonia semplice

These are for the most part “life-affirmative” works (a term Nielsen himself used in referring to them, years before Béla Bartók used it in describing his own Concerto for Orchestra). No.2 was touched off by a quartet of humorous character paintings Nielsen saw in a rural tavern: individuals labeled “Choleric,” “Phlegmatic,” “Melancholy” and “Sanguine,” terms which were incorporated into his movement headings. No.3 has pastoral images, particularly in its slow movement, in which the wordless solos for a soprano and baritone, as Nielsen wrote near the end of his life, emphasized “the peaceful atmosphere one might imagine in Paradise before the Fall,” while the work’s finale is “a hymn to work and the healthy enjoyment of daily life.” No.4 is a more dramatic paean to the indestructible nature of the life force itself. By way of oversimplification, No.5 may be regarded in a sense an extension of that theme: there is a battle of timpani from opposite sides of the stage in the finale of No.4, and in the first movement of No.5 there is a section in which the snare drummer is instructed to go at it “as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra.” No.6, far from being a “Simple Symphony,” is a subtle and frequently satirical one, thumbing its nose in ways sometimes jolly but just as frequently bitter in advocating simplicity in the face of trends Nielsen regarded as extreme.


As with so many descriptive symphonies, the degree of graphic illustration perceived by the performers and/or the audience is more or less up to them, and the listener who busies himself with expectations or discoveries of specific images will only miss the point. The essential strength of Nielsen’s music is its sincerity, its genuineness, its quality of being alive in a more general but no less powerful sense. It is the genuineness, rather than specific imagery, that draws the attention and response from those who perform this music and those who hear it. One simply -- and happily -- surrenders oneself to it. Self-importance has no part in “interpreting” it. Conductors drawn to this music do not speak of “my Nielsen.”

These considerations may serve to explain how it is that I honestly cannot think of any recorded performance of a Nielsen symphony that has been less than satisfactory. Almost all of them have been a good deal more than that. One “integral” offering which I still admire was recorded for the Danish label Kontrapunkt by the orchestra in the composer’s home town: the Odense SO, under its Russian chief conductor at the time, Edward Serov, in the Carl Nielsen Concert Hall. (After Serov left Odense, Osmo Vänskä stepped in to record the three concertos, a few years before undertaking his own cycle of the symphonies.) Whether under Danish or Finnish or Russian or American conductors, whether with American, British, or Continental orchestras, recorded performances of Nielsen’s symphonies invariably seem to have been empowered by deep understanding and enthusiasm, by wholehearted, non-resistant conviction, and by an urgent compulsion to bring this music to life and make it known on its own wonderful terms. The listener senses a total-immersion commitment to this music and an absolute trust in its urgency. And this goes in spades for the latest round of three integral cycles of the symphonies in time for the sesquicentennial observances, in which the common element is -- not entirely surprisingly -- Naxos.

Only a few years ago Naxos brought out on its own label the very authoritative recordings of Nielsen’s six symphonies, based on the critical editions of the scores, in which Michael Schønwandt conducted the Danish National SO. These had been issued originally on Dacapo, the Danish label which now has brought out recordings of the six symphonies and Nielsen’s three concertos (one each for violin, for flute, and for clarinet) made not in Copenhagen or Odense, but during concerts of the New York Philharmonic under its music director Alan Gilbert. These recordings, both as individual CDs and as a four-disc box, are distributed by Naxos, as are the other two recent Nielsen cycles, recorded during the same period, 2012-2015, on BIS and Chandos, both of which labels have interesting histories with this music. (See below for catalog numbers and other details of these releases.)

It was quite a gesture of endorsement for the Danish label to undertake the ambitious production with the American conductor and orchestra. Alan Gilbert developed his interest in Nielsen during his recent tenure as chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic; his successor in that position, the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, has recorded the symphonies for BIS, which so far offers them on three separate CDs, with no immediate plans for packaging them together. Nielsen has always figured prominently in Oramo’s repertory; last spring he and his Swedish orchestra were hosts for an ambitious Sibelius/Nielsen festival in Stockholm, in which ten Swedish and Finnish orchestras took part.


Oramo is also chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London, and it happens that two of the BBC’s other orchestras have given us recorded cycles of the Nielsen symphonies. Several years ago Osmo Vänskä recorded them for BIS with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, in Glasgow, and just now Chandos has issued a boxed set in which the symphonies are performed with remarkable powder and compassion by the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic under that orchestra’s principal guest conductor John Storgårds, who is also chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, with which he took part in the Stockholm festival. He has also recorded the Sibelius symphonies with the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos recently.

BIS’s Nielsen activity goes back still earlier than the Vänskä set, to when Myung-Whun Chung and the Gothenburg recorded four of the symphonies (and several smaller works), and Neeme Järvi conducted the other two. Chandos has also offered two earlier sets of these symphonies: one with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Bryden Thomson, the other the first such offering from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who was that orchestra’s chief conductor for two separate periods, in the 1970s and ’90s. Chandos also retains in its own catalog a fine earlier CD of the three Nielsen concertos, with three Danish soloists and the Danish National SO under Schønwandt (CHAN 8894).

Every one of these three new sets calls for enthusiastic praise, both musically and technically. In all three cases the recordings were spaced out over about two years, rather than hurried through in a shorter time. Both Dacapo and BIS made their recordings in SACD, while Chandos did not, but the Chandos sound realistic of the three. What Storgårds and Chandos have achieved, in fact, strikes me as the most all-round persuasive of these three “integral” recordings of the Nielsen symphonies: the performances have the most consistent level of intensity and persuasiveness, and the sound itself is similarly consistent, in its general richness and realism, and in its specific suitability to this music.


But there are no losers here, and all three labels have a great deal to be proud of. Dacapo notes that all the Gilbert performances were “Recorded in concert,” but, happily, the applause, and any other audience noises there may have been, were skillfully edited out. Neither the Oramo recordings on BIS nor the Storgårds on Chandos is so labeled, but one may wonder whether these also were taken down “live,” for in all three sets there is that sense of spontaneity and sweeping momentum which we associate more with a live performance than one recorded under studio conditions. A further suspicion is engendered by the way the “decay” seems to be cut off at the end of each performance in the Storgårds set -- not abruptly, by any means, but rather as if heading off an outburst of applause. If the Chandos and/or BIS recordings were indeed taken down live, then very high marks to them as well as Dacapo for skill and sensitivity.

The sketch of Nielsen on the Chandos box, booklet, and individual sleeves is a little off-putting, but it is easily enough ignored (or covered up, as at least one otherwise enthusiastic listener has done), and the point is what comes in through the ear, not the eye. What does come in through the eye in a far more welcome sense, though, is David Fanning’s comprehensive, detailed, and exceptionally readable annotation, even more appreciated in its full continuity in the Chandos box than it is, word for word, with the individual BIS discs. I cannot recall another instance in which annotation was shared by two different companies; all that seems to be different is the year of copyright.

If you have Blomstedt's San Francisco recordings, on Decca, or Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s with the Finnish Radio SO on Finlandia (with a particularly powerful No.4), you may not feel a need to replace or duplicate them, but there is no denying the extraordinary cohesiveness, flow, and all-round conviction of these new sets, or their fine sound. Personally, my response is strongest to the Storgårds set on Chandos, for the ultimate in concentrated power and the most logical and unlabored sense of flow. Storgårds builds his big effects with subtlety and unfailing instincts, and his pacing is incredibly dead-on at every point in all six symphonies. He achieves with apparent effortlessness but obviously with the most thorough and thoughtful preparation, that wonderful sense of the music simply laying down its own terms and getting the required response. If you choose Storgårds, you may of course pick up the single Dacapo CD of the three concertos. But listeners who feel a need for more than a single view of Beethoven or Bruckner may simply feel a similar need for more than a single box of the Nielsen symphonies -- and yes, Nielsen is that important a symphonist.

Three recent recordings of Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies (all distributed in the US by Naxos):

Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic, on Dacapo
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3; Erin Morley, soprano; Joshua Hopkins, baritone, in No.3 (Dacapo 6.220623)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 (Dacapo 6.220624)
Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (Dacapo 6.220625)
The Three Concertos; Nikolaj Znajder, violin; Robert Langevin, flute; Anthony McGill, clarinet (Dacapo 6.220556)
All four discs in a box on Dacapo 6.200003

Sakari Oramo conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, on BIS
Nos. 1 and 3; Anu Komsi, soprano; Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, baritone, in No.3 (BIS 2048)
Nos. 2 and 6 (BIS 2128)
Nos. 4 and 5 (BIS 2028)

John Storgårds conducting the BBC Philharmonic, on Chandos
Gillian Keith, soprano; Mark Stone, baritone, in No.3) (CHAN 10859(3) three discs, not available separately)

. . . Richard Freed