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After the centenary of World War I, here are two symphonies in some way defined by it. Nielsen’s Symphony No 4 (subtitled ‘The Inextinguishable’) was written in 1914-16 and celebrates the toughness of the human spirit. By contrast, Symphony No 5 was composed in the war’s aftermath in 1921-22, by which time Nielsen had thoroughly rejected the nationalism that had heralded the Great War.

The turbulence of world events was not the only sort Nielsen reflected in his compositions.  His domestic life was never easy and the years preceding the first world war were spent struggling to co-exist (or not) with his sculptor wife Anne-Marie.  Surprisingly the marriage lasted, but at some cost.  Nielsen did his best to manage the children on his own whilst his wife led an independent life for extended periods.  (The best-selling author Karl-Ove Knausgaard may have written in minute detail about what it means to be a modern Scandinavian dad, but Nielsen already experienced something of it a century before.) 

Nielsen made his living in a number of ways: as a violinist, conductor, teacher and composer of incidental music for the theatre.  After composing his fourth symphony he had a solid job at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, which lasted for the remainder of his life.  After his death his reputation as a composer steadily grew, not least because of the six substantial symphonies he’d managed to write during his lifetime.

Whilst the fourth symphony is structured in a four-movement form, the fifth has but two.  The fourth is something of an assault on the listener, full of furiously pursued ideas that never settle.  The fifth is more contemplative, introducing the spectre of war in a hypnotic march reminiscent of Shostakovich, and opening out into a splendid romantic canvas where opposing motifs compete and fade.  The second movement even quotes Brahms, but leaves it behind with vigorous sections of modernist writing.

Sir Colin Davis was regarded as a fantastic exponent of Nielsen’s symphonies and this recording captures some of the special atmosphere attached to his interpretations.  The spaciousness and structural detail in these performances still impress.

James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

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