For those unfamiliar with the symphonies of Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865–1931)—that includes me—the startling opening of his Third Symphony, “Sinfonia espansiva,” will undoubtedly come as a shock. Its relentless pounding chords, played at an accelerating pace by the entire orchestra on the same pitch, may owe more than a little to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica,” but their language is far more modern, and reflective of an era profoundly unsettled. Heard in high-resolution stereo (24/96 WAV) in the new live recording of Nielsen’s Symphonies No. 3 and 4 from the Seattle Symphony, conducted by their Music Director Designate, Thomas Dausgaard, the symphony’s opening volley seems calculated to catch us off guard, and convince us to listen with care to whatever may follow.

Filled with unbridled propulsive energy, the Third’s first movement creates a world all its own. Its opening also gives little indication of the pastoral serenity of the movement that follows, with its airy, wordless vocalizations between soprano and baritone beautifully sung by Estelí Gomez and John Taylor Ward, who are members of the Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth.

The unsettled motion beneath the surface calm of the second movement gives way to, first, the drama that greets us in the third movement, and then to the expansive warmth at the start of the Finale. The symphony’s ending proceeds from a folk-like dance, painted by diaphanous strings, to a heart-warming hymn. Its climax is furious, and wants, in this recording, only for greater percussive impact at the very close.

The Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” was composed between 1914 and 1916. Not only was Nielsen deeply disturbed by a world at war, but he was also experiencing difficulties both on the marital front and as the soon-to-resign house conductor of the Royal Danish Opera. If that terrible triumvirate of woe sounds like a perfect motivator for music of great conflict, you know what to expect at the start of the Fourth.

Nielsen characterized this symphony as about “the elemental Will of Life,” or, according to Seattle Symphony’s unattributed program note commentator, “the urge of life to continue even in the face of destructive forces.”

“Music is Life and, like it, is inextinguishable,” wrote Nielsen as he attempted to indicate the correct approach to a symphony that virtually seems to posit that life is synonymous with struggle. The manner in which Seattle Symphony’s horns rise out of and above the conflict is positively thrilling. Although the stately delicacy at the start of the second movement, and its lovely interplay of woodwinds bring some relief, it soon departs as the troubled third movement begins. Despite a most touching theme, the air is soon filled with another volley of dramatic, hand-wringing music.

The finale, with its two sets of widely spaced pounding timpani, screams major crisis. The virtually cataclysmic clash that grips the orchestra may be very different than the embodiment of chaos in Berg’s 12-tone Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.5, which he wrote in response to WWI, but it is no less horrible. Nielsen’s close is major wow stuff, and a great workout for a sound system. Although the symphony ends on a positive note, which is meant to indicate the triumph of the inextinguishable, it feels as though we’ve just barely made it through intact.

Dausgaard first guest-conducted the Seattle Symphony in 2003, during the reign of Gerard Schwarz, and became Principal Guest Conductor in 2011, just as Ludovic Morlot came on the scene. It was the audience’s enthusiastic response to these Nielsen performances, along with music critics’ overwhelmingly positive response to Dausgaard’s Seattle Symphony recording of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, that contributed to his appointment as the next Music Director of the Seattle Symphony. His term begins when Morlot steps down at the close of 2018-2019 season.

When I interviewed Dausgaard about his future position—portions of the interview will soon appear at classicalvoiceamerica.org, the website of the Music Critics Association of North America—he pointed out that even though he is Music Director of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and has amassed an impressive discography that includes many works by Nielsen, this is the first time he has recorded the symphonies.

“I’ve recorded other things by Nielsen, but I’ve felt I wanted to wait for the right moment,” he said. “And here we are.” Calling Nielsen’s symphonies “the strongest symphonic calling card for my country,” he pledged to bring the other four symphonies to Seattle in the coming years. Given the strong option of their eventual release in hi-rez, including hi-rez 5.1, this Seattle Symphony recording of Symphonies No. 3 and 4 could well be the first installment of what will eventually be hailed as the Nielsen cycle of the 21st century.

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