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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, September 2008

Schønwandt's performances, a reissue of recordings made in 2000 for the Dacapo label, are spectacular in every way, reminding me of the very first performance I ever heard of any Nielsen symphony, the Fifth, conducted by Jascha Horenstein. He imparts a melodic flow to the music that both minimizes the jarring juxtapositions and binds them together in a more continuous, unified progression. This is so much more satisfying than the jagged, continuously aggressive readings of these scores by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, and others. I do have an issue with the sound, however. The (apparently very empty) Danish Concert Hall is over-resonant, a fact that engineer Jorn Jacobsen did nothing to overcome, which leads to an occasional loss of detail which is not Schønwandt's fault. To be honest, the same blemish exists in the versions by Herbert Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony (Decca); in fact, the Blomstedt versions, highly prized by many listeners, are even more reverberant, almost engineered like a pop record. Ironically, Naxos itself offers the best alternative to this CD, the same two symphonies played by Adrian Leaper and the National Symphony of Ireland (8.550826). Here the sound is crisp, crystal-clear, and realistic without sounding heavy-handed, yet his interpretations, though faster than those of Schønwandt—his first movement of the First runs 8:55 to Schønwandt's 9:23, the Scherzo 7:50 to Schønwandt's 8:04, and the first two movements of the Sixth are proportionately shorter as well—do not linger in the memory with quite the same indelible impression, at least not for me.

Paul Ingram
Fanfare, September 2008

The First builds a proper head of youthful steam in the Allegro orgoglioso, keeps its character through the middle movements, and has an exciting finale. The Sixth is played straight, with an ending all the more disturbing for the close attention to dynamic detail, without added grotesquerie. The ironies are all too clear in these variations, which can be made to sound silly, but which are gripping from the Danish forces.

I’m not saying these Danish versions are the last word, but they are the ones to beat, and they’re the ones to buy, at present. Do try this, if you don’t know Nielsen. …This is music as lifeblood, played as such, but more subtly nuanced than usual, more carefully phrased and naturally balanced. The Andante of the First has not sounded so unaffected or moving in my vicinity before, and this is a successful reissue all round, highly recommendable at any price. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, July 2008

In short, these are two of the very best renditions of these works. Their main competition in terms of sound, performance, and interpretation comes from Herbert Blomstedt, particularly in his later recordings with the San Francisco Symphony. Those are also available at budget price in a couple of Decca two-fers containing a few other works of Nielsen as well. Schønwandt and Blomstedt are different enough in their interpretations of the symphonies to make both valuable, but the primary difference is in the sound itself. As recorded, the San Francisco orchestra seems somewhat beefier with a weightier bass, while the Danish orchestra is more transparent and lighter. Blomstedt’s accounts are recorded more closely and at a somewhat higher level than Schønwandt’s. By raising the volume slightly, the latter’s accounts are brought into sharper focus and compare very well with Blomstedt’s. While overall timings are fairly close, the two conductors diverge in certain movements. For example, Schønwandt is a bit slower in the first two movements of Symphony No. 1, but faster than Blomstedt in the last two. Blomstedt’s brass chorales in the third movement are more imposing than Schønwandt’s, but the latter’s finale has more bite. In Symphony No.6, Schønwandt takes more time with the first movement and impresses with his crisper articulation by the strings. Overall, Blomstedt’s orchestra is stronger in the brass and percussion departments, but his woodwinds are not as delectable as Schønwandt’s. However, I should point out that these differences are minimal in the larger scheme and preferences for one over the other are very much a personal thing. For example, I love the way Schønwandt brings out the flute, clarinet and oboe parts in the Sixth Symphony’s second movement, but miss the really rude trombone slides that Blomstedt provides. It must be said, however, that the Danes play this music to the manner born and their very fluency should not be taken for granted.

I am always struck by the greatness of Nielsen’s six symphonies. All of them are masterpieces and all have that unmistakable Nielsen sound. If the First Symphony shows influences of Brahms in places and the Sixth looks forward to Bartók and Shostakovich they are at the same time pure Nielsen. Every respectable collection of twentieth-century music should contain at least one set of these works and Schønwandt’s are as good a place to start as any, especially at the lower cost available now. For the record, these recordings use the new critical edition of the symphonies. Listening to Blomstedt and Schønwandt side by side, I could not discern any differences between the standard edition that Blomstedt presumably used and the new one. I imagine a close study of the scores would reveal some variants in scoring. The general listener, though, should find either recording satisfying. For myself, I have a slight preference for Schønwandt’s recording of the First Symphony and Blomstedt’s of the Sixth. Naxos is in the process of issuing the remaining symphonies, with the disc containing the Second and Third next. In the meantime do pick up a copy of this CD at your earliest opportunity, particularly if you don’t know these wonderful works.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, June 2008

These performances were first released singly on Dacapo 8.224169 and then as part of a complete set, the latter much praised by Rob Barnett. For comparison I hauled out Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s Finnish Radio recordings; Nos. 1 and 2 on Warner Elatus 2564 60431 2, Nos. 5 and 6 on 0927 49424 2.

In his 2002 review Rob remarked that Michael Schønwandt is little known outside Denmark; indeed I could only recall his Chandos Salome, although I see he has also recorded works by fellow Dane Vagn Holmboe. Quite why these Nielsen symphonies are reappearing on Naxos is not clear but at least there is a price advantage over the original releases. That said, the Saraste discs are still pretty competitive at mid-price, as are Blomstedt’s two Double Decca sets, so Naxos don’t have the field all to themselves.

Nielsen’s Firstbegins and ends with a juxtaposition of C major and G minor, creating a tension that pervades the entire symphony. In the opening Allegro orgoglioso the Naxos recording may be more diffuse but in mitigation the Danes sound much more refined. There is an air of patience and restraint to Schønwandt’s reading that may not appeal to everyone but it certainly grew on me.

The lyrical G major Andante has some lovely phrasing and plenty of inner detail. Schønwandt pitches the gentler music against the darker interludes with great care, creating a genuine sense of symphonic development. Saraste’s recording is more transparent, the rocking theme on the lower strings marginally less telling than for Schønwandt. Still, Saraste achieves a certain cragginess in the climaxes and there is a wonderful sense of repose at the end; Schønwandt is generally more implacable and, in the final bars, more stoical.

The perky little tune that opens the Allegro comodo – in E major – is winningly phrased on both recordings, though Saraste emphasises the music’s more daring sonorities. Schønwandt’s style is altogether plainer but not to the detriment of detail and contrast. He is certainly less excitable than Saraste, a quality I appreciated more on repeated hearing.

In the fiery Finale – C major and G minor again – Schønwandt’s emphatic style seems more appropriate than ever. At this point I felt Saraste’s reading was beginning to lose some of its appeal. Make no mistake the Finns are more than capable of raw excitement, especially in the tuttis, but Schønwandt has a much surer grasp of the larger symphonic structure. The Danish brass are thrilling, the timp-led crescendos superbly judged. As always Schønwandt is unflappable, and that creates a musical tension all of its own.

I set out thinking that Saraste was unassailable in this symphony but I have to admit Schønwandt’s reading is very impressive indeed. Perhaps it’s a loftier, far-sighted reading, whereas Saraste’s is more immediate and impulsive. Both are compelling and I’d not want to be without either.

Nielsen’s last symphony, No. 6, is not as simple as its subtitle might suggest. Yes, there is a sunny, idyllic mood in the Tempo giusto but there are storm clouds too. Once again there is that tonal ambiguity, this time G major and B flat, and the movement ends enigmatically, without any sense of resolution.

Saraste is somewhat faster in this movement – 12:32 as opposed to 14:24 – yet he never misses the subtleties of Nielsen’s chamber-like scoring. His recording is more transparent and this time he has the surer grasp of musical structure. Saraste also points up the mix of Mahlerian innocence and Sibelian grandeur, bringing greater poignancy to the movement’s melancholic close.

One thing that did puzzle me about Schønwandt’s Sixth is that it was recorded over months rather than days. That isn’t ideal and perhaps explains why Schønwandt’s reading lacks the sheer concentration and focus of the First. Certainly Saraste has the better, more revealing acoustic and that’s a real plus in Nielsen’s delicate scoring.

The Humoresque recalls Shostakovich at his most sardonic, with martial side drums and grotesque instrumental touches. Musically Schønwandt’s steady approach works surprisingly well here, although sonically Saraste has the benefit of a broader, more detailed soundstage. Whatever their minor differences both conductors are alive to the movement’s strange, spectral mood.

The outwardly passionate string theme that opens the Proposta seria – Adagio is as uncertain as anything in this symphony. Again there are echoes of Shostakovich; is it the hollowness of these tunes that brings the latter to mind? Any sense of tranquillity is short-lived, and while the Finns play with commendable eloquence it’s the Danes who shine a light into the music’s dark corners.

The solo bassoon ushers in the final Theme and variations, Saraste deft in the ensuing waltz and bass drum intrusions. This time it’s the Finnish brass and agitated strings that make the most impact, the roar of percussion much enhanced by the wide-ranging recording. That said the Naxos disc is weighty but unspectacular, an apt description of Schønwandt’s approach to the score as a whole.

Despite my initial reservations about the recording of Schønwandt’s Sixth it remains a powerful performance. And while there are moments where I night prefer Saraste’s reading Schønwandt brings an air of authority to this music that’s impossible to ignore. Of course there are other recordings to consider – notably the Blomstedt sets – but in their different ways Saraste and Schønwandt are both deeply satisfying.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, June 2008

…the opening movement, the initial melody in the violins is cheerful and idyllic…The movement ends with muted violins and a melancholy mood. The scherzo, a Humoresque, is spare and quirky, with the percussion and side drum contributing to a generally edgy “bang on a can and call it music” quality. The strings reassume their proper role in a strongly felt Adagio, followed without a break by a finale in the form of a theme and nine variations. Schønwandt and the orchestra are keenly sensitive to the variety of textures and the imagination with which the theme is variously treated, culminating in a mock triumphant fanfare.

Robert Baxter
Courier-Post, May 2008

Michael Schonwandt and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR make the most of this journey. Schonwandt draws taut playing from his musicians, who respond with a committed, if not always tonally, appealing performance.

Victor Carr Jr., May 2008

Originally released on Dacapo, this was the final installment of Michael Schonwandt's excellent complete Nielsen cycle (reviewed by colleague David Hurwitz, type Q2744 in Search Reviews). The performances are outstanding for their vibrancy and warmth--qualities you would expect in No. 1, but are equally present in the somewhat more acerbic No. 6. True, there's more virtuoso orchestral playing (particularly in No. 6's finale) to be heard from the San Francisco Symphony under a more driven Herbert Blomstedt, but the Danish National Radio Symphony players provide an unforced naturalness that is quite ingratiating. The recording itself has similar qualities--the orchestra placed comfortably in a spacious acoustic with wide dynamic range. These are just the sorts of performances that debunk the notion, most recently voiced by the New York Times, that "Nielsen is a nice composer: a little north of good, considerably south of great". An important release, made even more attractive by the Naxos price.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2008

You don't live dangerously with Schonwandt, but you may well live more happily in the long term

While welcoming this first disc of a Nielsen symphony cycle, I fervently hope it does not signal the deletion of the present discs in the Naxos catalogue from the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and Adrian Leaper, their Second and Third symphonies having stood the test of time as being the recommended version in the UK’s ‘Good CD Guide’. Here we have the First and Sixth Symphonies from the Danish National Symphony conducted by Michael Schonwandt, their smooth and sophisticated playing much different to the rough-hewn vigour and white-heat atmosphere of the performances from the Irish Orchestra. Which you prefer much depends on your view of Nielsen. There is certainly a feeling of Czech warmth in this First Symphony, Schonwandt’s well-judged tempos and long flowing lines showing an instinctive response to Nielsen. The growling lower strings are ideal for the more assertive moments of the opening movement, and the playing throughout the work is very fine, the mellow brass integrating rather than dominating. Schonwandt takes the third movement at an unexpectedly broad tempo which allows him to maximise the mood swing to the high-impact finale. His Sixth does not venture into the quirky world many other conductors enjoy, his view being more predictable than scary, the playing immaculate in its poise and intonation. You don’t live dangerously with Schonwandt, but you may well live more happily in the long term. The recordings have previously been available on the Decapo label, the sound engineering matching the elegance of the performances.

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