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Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, November 2009

These Danish recordings—originally released on Dacapo—are very welcome, especially at this bargain price. I much enjoyed their coupling of the First and Sixth [Naxos 8.570738 so I had high hopes for their Fourth and Fifth…Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, intended to express ‘the elemental will to live’, opens with wild outbursts underpinned by muscular timps and restless strings. Contrast that with the gentle, life-affirming melodies that follow—poignantly played by the Danish band—and the dialectic of this symphony is revealed…As a recording the Naxos disc sounds warm and spacious, with plenty of growl to the brass and bite to the strings. Moreover, the all-important timps are crisp and clear, especially in the quiet bridging passage that links the first two movements.

There’s plenty of detail and point in the chamber-like Poco allegretto, the scampering string pizzicati and solo cello tune delightfully expressive. What a strange interlude this is—a moment of quiet reflection before the imperious timps’ return. Schønwandt is much more engaging here than Saraste [on Finlandia] who, as good as he is, doesn’t find nearly as much character and warmth in the notes. And at the start of the Poco adagio the latter’s timpanists are nowhere near as commanding as they can be, although they do make amends in the Con anima’s epic ‘duel of the drums’…it’s Schønwandt’s patient, more measured reading that best conveys the music’s inner tensions, its overall structure laid bare for all to see. It’s a simple choice, really; either one tends towards the more volatile Finnish performance—the build-up to the final peroration is especially thrilling—or one opts for Schønwandt’s more forensic approach. Alternatively one could be pusillanimous and plump for both—as I do—since both are very persuasive indeed…Nielsen’s next symphony—in the tradition of great Fifths—is probably his finest. It’s also one of the oddest, cast in two movements divided into six parts. Schønwandt certainly captures the sinister, somewhat lopsided, character of the Allegro giusto, epitomised by those weird bassoon calls. The invasive side-drums and the brutish march that follows add a sudden twist of Shostakovich to the proceedings. This is gritty stuff, the Danes playing with startling precision throughout. In the ensuing Adagio the horns may be a little less than unanimous but, as ever, Schønwandt never allows the pace to flag or pulse to flutter, even when the music subsides, only to be reinvigorated later on. The playing is wonderfully mellow here, which only highlights the raucous side-drums even more. And if you think Schønwandt is too reticent in the Fourth he proves otherwise in the gaunt climaxes of the Fifth.

After that enigmatic conclusion to the Adagio, a robust, big-boned second movement cast in four parts—Allegro-Presto-Andante poco tranquillo-Allegro (Tempo 1)—it’s a mélange of competing moods, the delicate fabric of the Presto torn apart by the savage timps. Schønwandt and his band play with unusual ferocity here—just listen to the screeching brass—before modulating to that restorative Andante. The poise and purity of this music—in marked contrast to what has gone before—is superbly realised, although I did long for a more full-bodied string sound. No quibbles about the trenchant finale, though, which the Danes bring off with commendable energy and thrust, Schønwandt goading them on to a thrilling finish.

Yet another barnstormer from Naxos and a disc that makes me even more impatient to hear Schønwandt’s readings of Nielsen’s Second and Third. My loyalty to Saraste isn’t entirely eroded, though, as the latter has his moments in the Fourth and brings real fire to the Fifth. Also, there is an edge to the Finnish performances—helped by a more astringent recording—that is strangely compelling. That said, the warmer, weightier Naxos sound will probably appeal to more listeners. But it’s Schønwandt’s unwavering grip on these scores that sets him apart. Indeed, for that reason alone these performances deserve their place alongside Schmidt’s pioneering versions [on Regis].

Paul Ingram
Fanfare, November 2009

For a single disc coupling these two great symphonies in good sound, the Naxos reissue of a Dacapo original is probably the way to go, though it is not the last word…Yet Schønwandt delivers, whether in the timpani duel at the end of the “Inextinguishable,” or via the grand conclusion to the Fifth…There’s still no ideal recording of either symphony: this composer is tough to play. Yet I don’t come away from Nielsen thinking about recording comparisons. I leave convinced that life is worth living. That trick works again here on Naxos…these faithful, big-scale performances won’t disappoint anyone collecting this budget series.

Richard Lawrence
Classic FM, September 2009

Nielsen—and Shostakovich—lovers should not hesitate.

Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, September 2009

Starting with the Fourth Symphony, Schønwandt obtains a fine orchestral balance that brings out both the warmth and the dynamism. Clearly part of this is due to the superb acoustics of the Danish Radio Concert Hall, but the idiomatic performance of the orchestra and the unobtrusive direction of Schønwandt are what make this sound so beautiful. This is not to imply any blandness but a real naturalness that does not draw attention to itself. And when it comes to excitement, I have never heard a better timpani duel in the last movement…Schønwandt’s opening Allegro is exuberant and sparkling…in the Poco allegretto second movement Schønwandt wins hands down with his more relaxed tempo and suppler woodwinds…In the blazing finale…It is fitting that Schønwandt’s timpanists, René Mathiesen and Christian Utke Schiøler, get credit on the back of the disc. I wouldn’t want to be without either recording of this great work, but if forced to choose, I would pick Schønwandt over Blomstedt.

In the Fifth Symphony… Schønwandt’s orchestral choirs are well delineated, and the placing of the timpani in the march is excellent…The bassoon and clarinet solos near the end of the symphony’s first part I, the Adagio, are also wonderful…In the Allegro Schønwandt is more straightforward and a little rigid, though his orchestra plays spectacularly with whooping horns, terrific lower brass, and solid timpani…capture[s] the tranquillo of the following movement’s Andante poco tranquillo extremely well…The symphony’s ending with its burst of glory in the brass is well captured…As in the earlier symphony, Schønwandt’s soloists—here Niels Thomsen, clarinet and Tom Nybye, snare drum—receive credit on the back of the disc case…if you are collecting the Schønwandt series, do not hesitate.

The Infodad Team, July 2009

Composers’ relationships with tonality were a source of considerable angst and a great deal of experimentation in the early 20th century—and the pull toward a tonal style (or push away from it) continues to affect composers today. Carl Nielsen had a particularly complicated relationship with tonal structures, and that is one thing that makes his six symphonies so fascinating. The ear hears them as tonal but usually cannot quite pin them down—in what key, exactly, are these works, or the movements of which they are made? Nielsen’s tonal fluidity is especially clear in his fourth and fifth symphonies, presented together in the final volume of Michael Schønwandt’s performances with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR. These re-releases of 1999 performances stand up remarkably well a decade later, with Nielsen’s unusual and intense use of drums (including two timpanists in No. 4) being brought forth especially well. Schønwandt sees these as unified works with strong parallels. Certainly both are rooted in World War I: No. 4 was composed during it and No. 5 not long afterwards. Schønwandt emphasizes the flow of No. 4, whose four movements are played without pause, and he follows Nielsen’s tempo indications carefully. This produces a closely argued work whose famous fourth-movement timpani duel still comes as a surprise when first heard, but turns out by the end to fit closely into the work’s overarching theme—that there exists an inextinguishable life-force through which all beings are connected. Schønwandt also effectively integrates the snare-drum tattoos of No. 5 (Nielsen’s only mature symphony without a title) into the larger canvas of the work. These dramatic entries, which prefigure Shostakovich’s implacable Nazi march in the first movement of his Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”), present a distinct and sinister challenge to the rest of the orchestra; indeed, at one point Nielsen says the drummer must play in his own tempo, as if determined to send the music off track. This is a work in which tonality, form and expression are all fluid, containing in its two movements half a dozen distinct sections, a fugue, contrasts between the unsettling and the tranquil, and more. Interestingly, the symphony resolves clearly into a key that is not only positive but also, since Beethoven’s Third Symphony, positively heroic: E-flat major. Schønwandt’s knowing handling of the work’s complexities, and the excellent and idiomatic playing of the orchestra in both symphonies, make this CD a triumphant completion of these performers’ Nielsen cycle.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2009

The final disc in Michael Schonwandt’s series of Nielsen’s symphonies that were first issued to abundant critical acclaim almost a decade ago. The Fourth and Fifth are the most overtly dramatic of the six symphonies, the Fourth, The Inextinguishable, using two timpanists placed at opposite sides of the orchestra to unleash a barrage of noise in the last movement that gives way to a final affirmation that life will always prevail. In the Fifth it is the side-drum that is instructed to bring conflict, his role unwritten, but charged with disrupting the progress of the symphony. Maybe Schonwandt is not a man for outgoing theatrical gestures, and in both works he looks towards the lyrical aspects of the score. I have to say. in stark contrast to other critics, that, much though I admire his performances of both works, I would more readily return to the ‘rough and ready’ earlier versions on Naxos played by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland who tear into both scores with unbridled zeal. Certainly the Danish National is the superior orchestra, the rounded tone of the strings is very beautiful, and the woodwind lack nothing in elegance. Maybe the engineers, who obtain such a clean and clear sound in this original Dacapo issue, just fought a little shy of the anticipated deluge of sound, and you will require a very high volume setting to extract the required impact that is there for the taking.

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