Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, well-known in Toronto, has conducted the TSO on numerous occasions, most recently last April in Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, and will be back again this coming June with works by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. Dausgaard also seems to be in demand in many other places these days, perhaps most of all in Seattle, Washington, where he has held the post of principal guest conductor of the Seattle Symphony (SS) since 2014 and was recently appointed the orchestra’s music director effective with the 2019-2020 season.
Last year, Dausgaard made his first recording with the SS — Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 in the Cooke edition; this new Nielsen CD is his second. Both recordings are of live performances given in Benaroya Hall, the orchestra’s home base.
Dausgaard has been conducting Nielson’s music all his life and as a native Dane whose first piano teacher was one of Nielsen’s students, one can consider the performances on this new CD — well-played, committed and in the case of the Fourth Symphony, as fiery and as exciting as one could hope for — to be near-definitive.
After playing violin in the Royal Danish Orchestra for many years, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) went on to teach at the Royal Academy. His career path as a violinist/teacher may have been conventional, but as a composer, Nielsen was very much his own man. The music of his mature years is highly original and frequently unpredictable. His Symphony No. 3 (1910-11) has a heroic ¾ Allegro recalling the opening of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony and a luscious Brahmsian chorale tune to lead off the finale, but soprano and baritone soloists in the slow movement. His Symphony No. 4 has two sets of timpani battling each other for dominance.
For the booklet accompanying this CD, Dausgaard has written extensively provocative notes, using highly metaphorical language to describe what goes on in each of the symphonies. For example, in his view, Symphony No. 3 pretty much follows the creation story laid out in Genesis: the first movement is “the beginning of everything”; the slow second movement is the Garden of Eden with the two solo voices representing Adam and Eve; the third movement is “time for a bite of the apple”; and the finale represents “nature and man in expansive, glorious harmony.” Dausgaard’s notes notwithstanding, this is also music with its own melodic and harmonic patterns, and carefully crafted developments of musical ideas. In other words, one can take it purely as music. Dausgaard, his players and singers, give it a fine performance.
Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony (1914-16), written just a few years after the Third, represents a radical change of direction in his creative life. Symphony No. 3 clearly looks back to Schumann and Brahms, while Symphony No. 4, with its wild and nearly hysterical opening bars, takes us into the Twentieth Century and into unexplored territory. The timpani duel in the last movement, for example, is something entirely new in symphonic music. While there have been other fine recorded performances of Nielsen’s Fourth, Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony, combining virtuosic playing with the flying by the seat of your pants abandon of a live performance, give us one that ranks right up there with the best of them.
LUDWIG VAN TORONTO