Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Symphony No. 4
, “The Inextinguishable.”
Symphony No. 5
Colin Davis, cond; London SO
LSO LIVE LSO 0694 (SACD: 66:38) Live: London 2009, 2010
It is great fun to have one’s expectations shattered—particularly when the
surprise is positive. I confess to having low expectations for this disc. Davis in recent years, now into his 80s, has seemed to me to operate at a lower energy level than he did in decades past, and both of these symphonies require energy and passion. They also require a very careful sense of orchestral balance, something that has admittedly always been a Davis strength. The truth is that these two performances go to the top echelon of Nielsen recordings—on a par with Martinon’s great Chicago Fourth (except that RCA has sabotaged that one with an incorrect lengthy pause in the spot where the LP turned over), and with Bernstein’s classic recording of the Fifth.
Davis’s Fourth is extremely fast—in fact it has the shortest overall timing of the almost two dozen recordings I own. Martinon’s is my current shortest, at 32:39 (Karajan, for comparison, is 38:29); Davis clocks in at 31:21. Nowhere, however, does it sound rushed, because his phrasing is plastic and supple in the music’s lyrical sections, and dramatically driven at the appropriate moments. My 21 recordings of the Fifth run between 31:10 and 38:51, with Davis more in the middle at 35:17.
In both performances, Davis creates extreme senses of tension and release, scales his dynamics with great care, and brings a rhythmic tautness to his work that is characteristic of only the greatest Nielsen performances. At the same time, there is a singing warmth to the lyrical sections that emphasizes the dramatic contrasts of the music, and of these readings. The LSO plays with intensity and commitment in every bar, clearly inspired by the music and its conductor. The strings dig in, horns blare out, the timpani duo in the Fourth is suitably fierce, and the various harmonic crises in the Fifth have rarely sounded so anguished and heartfelt.
For me, defining a performance as great does not necessarily imply that the performer does the piece precisely as I wish to hear it, or as I would do it if I had the musical and technical ability to conduct. A great performance for me is one that convinces you as it goes along that
is the only way the music can go. It makes impossible thinking about the performance—but instead sweeps one along. That is what we have in these two readings.
The Fourth was recorded in May 2009 and the Fifth in October 2010—each being combined from two performances. Audience noise is not a factor. I do not have surround sound at home, but I listened to it on an SACD player, and the sound was clear and well balanced. What problems I have with the sound are, I think, attributable to the rather shallow and somewhat hard acoustic of the Barbican. But the reservations are minor, and the strengths of the performances make this essential for anyone who loves these symphonies. For those who have not yet made their acquaintance, this is a great way to do it. It certainly is the very best recording that combines two of the Danish master’s finest symphonies on one disc. Stephen Johnson’s program notes are well above the norm in quality and insights, and a lovely addition to an essential disc.
FANFARE: Henry Fogel
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 5, Op. 50 by Carl Nielsen
Sir Colin Davis
London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1921-1922; Denmark
Featured Sound Samples
Symphony no 4 "Inextinguishable": I. Allegro
Symphony no 5: Ib. Adagio non troppo
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