This work is, in certain respects, a reprise of Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, the Inextinguishable. Some of its themes are variations of what one hears in the Fourth, and the story line is familiar: the forces of life gently dawning; the forces of life getting tromped on by the anti-life forces; the forces of life fighting back and emerging triumphant. Nielsen follows this scenario a couple of times in the two-part 5th. The Inextinguishable is one of the greatest symphonic expressions of this theme, and the Fifth Symphony does not quite achieve the same stature. Nonetheless, it is a very powerful and at times tumultuous work. The London Symphony Orchestra showed how great an orchestra it is by fully meeting the demands that Nielsen makes. The great fugal writing in the Presto and the gorgeous Andante in the second part of the symphony was staggeringly good, and the LSO strings excelled in playing it. But then, so did the timpani and brass more than meet their parts. It was a thrill to hear orchestral playing at this level.
Now, I get to relive this thrill, because Davis has been working his way through all 6 symphonies for the LSO Live label. I now have the live recording made during my evening at the Barbican, and it is superb. What makes it even more indispensable is that it is paired with a live recording of the Fourth Symphony. The standard in this work was set by Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a galvanizing performance that RCA set down back in 1966. It can still be heard in all its glory on the RCA CD. However, it now has a rival. Martinon set a blazing pace in the Fourth by playing it in half an hour. Davis is only seconds longer in his fierce, urgent account. Of course, it is not all about speed. It is about capturing the elemental force and passion that makes life Inextinguishable. This Davis and his great orchestra have done, which makes this particular pairing of symphonies indispensable to any lover of Nielsen's music (LSO Live SACD LS 00694). It would also make a great introduction to the newcomer. I can also heartily recommend the installment which contains Nielsen's symphonies Nos. 1 and 6, which are performed at the same high level (LSO Live SACD LS00715).
I will never forget the experience of hearing Sibelius' Fifth Symphony for the first time. I played the reel-to-reel tape (that should date me) of the Leonard Bernstein recording with the New York Philharmonic almost by accident, as it had been given as a gift to my parents, not to me. I was dumbfounded. I did not know that this kind of artistic greatness existed in the world of sound. It changed my life. I've listened to many recordings of the Fifth Symphony since that time, and attended a number of live performances. I still hold to the view that the Bernstein recording is the greatest, with Colin Davis's interpretation with the Boston Symphony Orchestra coming in close behind. Now there is another competitor. Paavo Berglund, who died this year, knew Sibelius personally, and conducted cycles of his symphonies several times. They were respectable efforts, but the ones I heard did not rise to the top. However, Berglund had a reputation as a better conductor in live concerts than he was in the recording studio. A new release from the London Philharmonic Orchestra label (LPO-0065) confirms this reputation in the recordings of live performances of the Sibelius Fifth and Sixth symphonies from 2003 and 2006 respectively. Berglund captures the excitement and majesty of the Fifth with tempi that are similar to Bernstein's, even a mite tighter. Nothing sounds rushed, however; it is a magnificent unfolding. By all means, get the Bernstein, but this is a worthy successor.
Moving on to music on a smaller scale, I have had a new Naxos CD of Ermanno Wolf Ferrari's music close to me for the past month because it offers some of the most delightfully melodic, engagingly mellow works for winds and small orchestra that I have heard. Wolf Ferrari (1876-1948) called them concertinos, and composed one for oboe, one for Cor anglais, and another for bassoon. The soloists and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, under conductor Francesco La Vecchia, impart just the right golden glow to this very satisfying music. The last of these works, the Concertino for Cor anglais, was written in 1947, just as the avant-garde was taking over the European musical world. Music as lovely as this was sent into internal exile, not to be heard again for many decades. Don't let these 20th-century beauties pass you by on Naxos (8.572921).
The Naxos label, partnered with Marco Polo, has been bringing us the music of Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988), perhaps the finest Portuguese composer of the 20th century. His six symphonies, which are all available, attest to this. Naxos's most recent release of his music includes orchestral pieces, such as the Symphonic Overture No. 3, a ballet, titled Alfama, Three Symphonic Sketches, and other works, magnificently played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Alvaro Cassuto. The Overture, in particular, is gloriously melodic and has real sweep to it. It could almost pass for the kind of open-hearted, prairie-flavored music being written in the United States at the time. In fact, the main theme of the overture is uncannily like the music of American composer Peter Schickele in its main melody. This is not to say that Braga Santos' music sounds derivative, but only that great minds think alike.
Speaking of open-hearted music, I must bring to your attention the new Naxos CD of Kenneth Fuchs's orchestral works (8.559723), brilliantly played by the London Symphony Orchestra, under American conductor JoAnn Falletta. Like Aaron Copland, Fuchs (b. 1956) has a way of capturing the stirrings of the human heart and the yearnings of the soul in highly spirited, soaring music. His works carry within themselves an inimitably American sense of expectancy, of horizons glimpsed and striven for, and, finally, of boldly announced arrivals. He achieves all this within the conventional means of tonality. Orchestrally, he employs a sparkling kind of American Impressionism, though I heard a dash of Benjamin Britten's Sea Interludes in Atlantic Riband. American Rhapsody is, according to Fuchs, a Romance for violin and orchestra. It has a Samuel Barber-like melodic appeal and orchestral lushness to it. If I wanted an English reference point for its soaring solo violin line, I would choose Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending. Violinist Michael Ludwig plays with both elegance and exquisite feeling. So does violist Paul Silverthorne in the lovely Divinum Mysterium, a one movement concerto for viola and orchestra, inspired by a Protestant hymn tune. This is unfailingly appealing and immediately accessible music.