Seattle and Dausgaard Welcome Us to Nielsen's World

For those unfamiliar with the symphonies of Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865–1931)—that includes me—the startling opening of his Third Symphony, "Sinfonia espansiva," will undoubtedly come as a shock. Its relentless pounding chords, played at an accelerating pace by the entire orchestra on the same pitch, may owe more than a little to Beethoven's Third Symphony, "Eroica," but their language is far more modern, and reflective of an era profoundly unsettled. Heard in high-resolution stereo (24/96 WAV) in the new live recording of Nielsen's Symphonies No. 3 and 4 from the Seattle Symphony, conducted by their Music Director Designate, Thomas Dausgaard, the symphony's opening volley seems calculated to catch us off guard, and convince us to listen with care to whatever may follow.

Filled with unbridled propulsive energy, the Third's first movement creates a world all its own. Its opening also gives little indication of the pastoral serenity of the movement that follows, with its airy, wordless vocalizations between soprano and baritone beautifully sung by Estelí Gomez and John Taylor Ward, who are members of the Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth.

The unsettled motion beneath the surface calm of the second movement gives way to, first, the drama that greets us in the third movement, and then to the expansive warmth at the start of the Finale. The symphony's ending proceeds from a folk-like dance, painted by diaphanous strings, to a heart-warming hymn. Its climax is furious, and wants, in this recording, only for greater percussive impact at the very close.

The Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable," was composed between 1914 and 1916. Not only was Nielsen deeply disturbed by a world at war, but he was also experiencing difficulties both on the marital front and as the soon-to-resign house conductor of the Royal Danish Opera. If that terrible triumvirate of woe sounds like a perfect motivator for music of great conflict, you know what to expect at the start of the Fourth.

Nielsen characterized this symphony as about "the elemental Will of Life," or, according to Seattle Symphony's unattributed program note commentator, "the urge of life to continue even in the face of destructive forces."

"Music is Life and, like it, is inextinguishable," wrote Nielsen as he attempted to indicate the correct approach to a symphony that virtually seems to posit that life is synonymous with struggle. The manner in which Seattle Symphony's horns rise out of and above the conflict is positively thrilling. Although the stately delicacy at the start of the second movement, and its lovely interplay of woodwinds bring some relief, it soon departs as the troubled third movement begins. Despite a most touching theme, the air is soon filled with another volley of dramatic, hand-wringing music.

The finale, with its two sets of widely spaced pounding timpani, screams major crisis. The virtually cataclysmic clash that grips the orchestra may be very different than the embodiment of chaos in Berg's 12-tone Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.5, which he wrote in response to WWI, but it is no less horrible. Nielsen's close is major wow stuff, and a great workout for a sound system. Although the symphony ends on a positive note, which is meant to indicate the triumph of the inextinguishable, it feels as though we've just barely made it through intact.

Dausgaard first guest-conducted the Seattle Symphony in 2003, during the reign of Gerard Schwarz, and became Principal Guest Conductor in 2011, just as Ludovic Morlot came on the scene. It was the audience's enthusiastic response to these Nielsen performances, along with music critics' overwhelmingly positive response to Dausgaard's Seattle Symphony recording of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, that contributed to his appointment as the next Music Director of the Seattle Symphony. His term begins when Morlot steps down at the close of 2018-2019 season.

When I interviewed Dausgaard about his future position—portions of the interview will soon appear at, the website of the Music Critics Association of North America—he pointed out that even though he is Music Director of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and has amassed an impressive discography that includes many works by Nielsen, this is the first time he has recorded the symphonies.

"I've recorded other things by Nielsen, but I've felt I wanted to wait for the right moment," he said. "And here we are." Calling Nielsen's symphonies "the strongest symphonic calling card for my country," he pledged to bring the other four symphonies to Seattle in the coming years. Given the strong option of their eventual release in hi-rez, including hi-rez 5.1, this Seattle Symphony recording of Symphonies No. 3 and 4 could well be the first installment of what will eventually be hailed as the Nielsen cycle of the 21st century.

Long-time listener's picture

Thanks for this review; you've described Nielsen's music vividly. I think it's great that you're making more people aware of this great music (I say this as someone who has virtually every set of Nielsen symphonies ever recorded). I love the way Nielsen moves organically from moments of great drama and power to other moments of serene, pastoral beauty. I love the deep, yearning sadness of his music, the fresh beauty and thrilling grandeur of his sonic landscapes, the mystery and the mysticism, and the power of the rhythms.

The 5th should be next on your list, if I may offer a recommendation. Rozhdestvensky on Chandos, with the Stockholm symphony, is my favorite, and in fact I think his entire set is really the most consistently good, despite often-seen recommendations for Blomstedt or other conductors. (He also does the finest 3rd I've heard so far). Aside from complete sets, there are many fine versions of the "Inextinguishable" too. Jarvi on DGG is one; Karajan, despite slightly disappointing early digital sound, is another. He recorded only that one Nielsen symphony, but his unique conducting skills and orchestral sound make it an outstanding one.

Best regards

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I really love comments like this.

I appreciate your recommendations. FYI, a very well known critic sent me the following:
"Best all-around cycle I've heard is Blomstedt/San Francisco on Decca. His earlier cycle in Copenhagen on EMI is good, too, but the Decca has much richer sound. I also like Bernstein for No. 3, most of Paavo Berglund's cycle on RCA, Kondrashin for a turbocharged, fast No. 5, almost anyone for the weird No. 6."

I wish I could do everything I want to do in life. I have so many priorities that I just invite them to duke it out in the parking lot, and then inform me which one survived to make it onto my to-do list. I have a friend who goes through every opera a composer writes, and then moves on to the next composer. His last such cycle was of Rossini operas. Amazing.

Anyway, you have me stoked. Thank you again.

volvic's picture

What Karajan did with the 4th is quite special but the sound yeeessh! The Jarvi recordings are splendid as well.

ednazarko's picture

Based what you listen to in your reviews and your other articles, I'd have thought someone would have recommended Nielsen to you long ago. Surprised you were unfamiliar, not at all surprised at your reaction.

Nielsen's symphonies were an absolute blast to perform, back when I was still playing trombone and tuba. He loved the brass section more than most, and the ensemble sound is ragingly gorgeous and physical when you're playing. Truth be told, having performed a couple of the symphonies made them less enjoyable to listen to on my audio gear. My memory is so brass forward and snarling and physical (since I was sitting in the middle of all that) and listening from in front of the orchestra (as recordings position the listener) doesn't thrill as much. So far no one's delivered the ability to remix instruments to taste...

Maybe the 5.1 releases will get closer. I've got the Karajan "inextinguishable" and it sounds so "safe", not terribly inextinguishable.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Not that I was one to begin with. In my lowly human state, I find that I have my loves, to which I return over and over. New composers and compositions come into the picture, of course, but at their own time. At the rate I'm moving, some composers may have to wait until the next lifetime.

I first listened to Nielsen's songs maybe 5 decades ago, in the recordings by Aksel Schiotz. I loved them. But for some reason, probably because there weren't recordings of the symphonies in the bargain bin at Tower Records at the time, I stopped there. Now I have impetus to continue... and revisit the songs as well.

My solace in all this is to read interviews with leading artists - pianists, for example - who have been performing for decades, and discover them saying things like, "I hadn't known the [ ] preludes until I happened to hear them on the radio on my way to a concert, and resolved to finally take a look at them. I've been working on them for the last six months, and find them fantastic. They'll find their way into my programs sometime next season."

ednazarko's picture

I've got my classical loves, most of which hit that category based on how much fun they were to play. (Have an embarrassing number of versions of some works like Scheherezade, Rimsky-Korsakov anything, etc..) And the rest of them are composers and pieces that have ZERO content from the instruments I played. No middle ground.

I have so little contact with classical music fans and performers, but lots with jazz, rock, and folk musicians (professional thing, lots of friends who perform.) I remembering discovering John Adams because Amazon shipped me a CD I didn't order - he wasn't around when I was performing - and then I was binging on everything he did, and on first and second degrees of separation composers.

For jazz and contemporary popular music there are spectacular discovery (internet) stations like Radio Paradise (if you haven't listened, do... I love ANY radio station where a significant portion of what I hear is music I don't already know.) Or WBGO in New York for jazz. I've yet to find a classical station that plays a significant amount of music I don't already know.

Now THAT is something worth thinking about... Would love to hear recommendations from people about classical/orchestral music internet radio stations that explore instead of just play different versions of the same old stuff.

I still want to be able to remix classical (and big band...) so that it sounds like it did to me when I was in the middle of the performance.

mrpeeve55's picture

Try Bavarian Radio Klassik

foxhall's picture

Just completed a first listen to this recording. I like it quite a lot and I own a few of Dausgaard's recordings with DR RadioSymfoniOrkestret. However, I feel like there's a connective feeling and more fire in the Blomstedt/SFS versions of these two works.

Blomstedt's 'Inextinguishable' is just remarkable but I need to disclose I live in the Bay area (with a crushing mortgage) and have a deep liking for Blomstedt.

Like others, I look forward to every music review you write.

Long-time listener's picture

I think Blomstedt's 4th is remarkable. It did as much as Karajan's--the first I heard--to open up the world of Nielsen for me. I just think that his set as a whole is not as consistently good as Rhozdestvensky's (hope I didn't misspell that) or some others. Blomdstedt doesn't seem to really "get" the 1st, and the crucial pastorale movement of the 3rd, with the singers, doesn't come off as well either. Over time, I've ended up listening to others much more--except for that remarkable 4th.

The sound on Karajan's is actually quite beautiful, except that the early digital sound turns hard and congested in the busier or denser passages. A shame. It's very cohesive and well-structured, and he seems to understand the music as well as anyone.

Berglund's now budget-priced set is excellent. Despite tending toward breakneck tempos, he usually captures the feeling. Jarvi's set is good too.

Best regards

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

And Happy Solstice. After the darkness of tonight, the light returns (slowly).


lbkwhitney's picture

Hello Jason,

Your review prompted me to listen to Nielsen's third Symphony. I had on hand Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic's performance (New York Philharmonic/DACAPO, 24/192). The performance is wonderful - but the sound is truly realistic. This is the first orchestral recording I have heard in some time where I could visualize myself sitting in a concert hall listening to a live performance.