Having watched and listened to Nielsen’s Fourth from the BBC Proms, greatly enjoying Osmo Vanska’s performance with the BBC SO. It was the third movement’s intensity which most impressed with its calm and breathtakingly quiet episodes and exquisite interplay of woodwind as a prelude to the eruption of the finale. I was surprised to hear the announcement that it was first performed at a Promenade Concert in 1965, the centenary of the birth of both Nielsen and Sibelius. John Barbirolli was the conductor of the Halle Orchestra in a concert which included Haydn’s Symphony no 83 “La Poule” if my memory serves me correctly, and Beethoven’s Eroica. I was present at this concert and still have memories of this fine orchestra and conductor.
The music of Nielsen appealed to me because of its objectivity. After the slowing down of music over long time spans in the nineteenth century, Nielsen becomes a breath of fresh air, rediscovering the movement which was second nature to classical composers like Haydn. The Fourth Symphony was completed in 1916. Robert Simpson in his book on Carl Nielsen 1952) speaks in terms of exploding nebulae which is how the work begins. It is clearly influenced by a world at war, but it is life affirming as its title “Inextinguishable” denotes. Nielsen was very much unknown in the UK until around 1950 when Tuxen brought the Fifth Symphony to the Edinburgh Festival and gramophone recordings became available. The Fourth is the first of Neilsen’s 6 symphonies to deal with conflict. The first three are out going and don’t appear to be much troubled, apart from the boy lazing on the pier in the Four Temperaments (no 2) when something drops into the water to disturb his peace.
I first heard Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony on the famous recording of the Danish State Radio Orchestra under Launy Grondahl, borrowed from Enfield Gramophone Library in my teens. This was issued in Britain by HMV and it was a dramatic, fiery performance with the two sets of timpani battling out the finale. Much later I discovered the even more compelling performance under Thomas Jensen, now available on Danacord. Even though the orchestra don’t hold together in the energy and passion created, it is an incredible experience. Nielsen himself did not record his works, but Grondahl, Jensen and Erik Tuxen had all played under his direction so their interpretations have special interest. Evidently Nielsen’s daughters felt that no one matched Nielsen’s own performances, but Thomas Jensen is often thought to be closest with his volatile, unstable readings which really catch fire.