Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 3 (Sinfonia expansiva) and 4 (The Inextinguishable). Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Estelí Gomez (soprano), John Taylor Ward (baritone). Seattle Symphony Media SSM 1017.
By Richard S. Ginell
DIGITAL REVIEW — The news that Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard will be the Seattle Symphony’s next music director was not exactly a bolt from the blue since he is the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, though it is unusual in the symphony world to fill the music director’s chair by promoting from within.
Yet the selection of Dausgaard – at least from the perspective of an observer outside Seattle – makes great sense because his sensational recording of the complete Mahler Symphony No. 10 demonstrated a special rapport with this orchestra. Dausgaard’s second Seattle disc – the start of a new cycle of the six Carl Nielsen symphonies – adds further evidence that this partnership is a keeper. The Seattle Symphony thus becomes the third American orchestra to attempt a Nielsen cycle, after the San Francisco Symphony early in the Herbert Blomstedt era and the New York Philharmonic in the just-concluded Alan Gilbert era.
Again, as in the Mahler album, Dausgaard contributes a lengthy, highly absorbing liner note, adding details that tighten his personal identification with the material: Both his grandmother and his piano teacher studied with Nielsen.
Yet despite his concentration on Scandinavian music, there isn’t much Nielsen in his extensive discography so far. Perhaps he was reluctant to confront for the record the colossus bestriding all of Denmark’s music the same way Sibelius has intimidated or repelled the Finns in their youth.
Dausgaard writes that the Third Symphony is about “finding the roots for harmony between man and nature,” and his rendition manages to achieve that balance while injecting some additional urgency into the finale. The wordless vocalises that drift their way into the pastoral second movement – a spine-tingling flash of inspiration – are affectingly sung by soprano Estelí Gomez and baritone John Taylor Ward.
The opening measures of the sometimes combative, ultimately triumphant Fourth Symphony crackle with energy and momentum, as do the heroic climaxes later in the first movement. The second movement has an appropriately gentle lilt, like folk music, and the third movement burns with intensity in the center section, although the Seattle strings audibly struggle to keep up with the dizzying runs before the finale begins. The finale bristles dramatically as the dueling timpani fire off their rounds.
In line with Seattle Symphony Media’s previous recordings under current music director Ludovic Morlot, the sound quality is rather mellow, not as clear and deep as the great sound Delos used to get from this crew. Or at least that’s what the CD reveals; the 24-bit, 96kHZ hi-rez download might be better.
The Dausgaard-Seattle performances are very good, no doubt about it, and competitive with most. Still, there are a few recordings that get a little more juice out of Nielsen’s quirky, exuberant sound world – like Leonard Bernstein’s historic Third with the Royal Danish Orchestra that helped set off a minor Nielsen boom outside Denmark in the 1960s (his Fourth with the New York Philharmonic curiously isn’t as good), or Blomstedt-San Francisco in both the Third and Fourth from their outstanding cycle.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.