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Posted October 1, 2010
General description: The full title of this DVD set, issued by Dacapo, is “Carl Nielsen: Complete Symphonies.” The set consists of a 59-minute documentary on Nielsen by the well-known Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen (on one DVD) and televised live performances of the six Nielsen symphonies by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Schønwandt (on two DVDs). These performances are different from the studio recordings by the same forces, also issued by Dacapo, on CD only. The documentary DVD comes with a thin booklet containing comments by Rasmussen, and the symphony DVDs come with a thick booklet containing a brief biographical sketch of Nielsen and descriptions of all six symphonies. The three DVDs are NTSC encoded for worldwide release, and the two booklets are in English, Danish, and German. Review of the documentary: The documentary, titled “Carl Nielsen: The Light and the Darkness,” has narration in English, Danish (if I remember correctly), German, and French. It presents an overview of Nielsen’s life, focusing on his stormy marriage, and his music, focusing on his two operas, six symphonies, and some of his songs. There is no mention of his solo piano music, wind quintet, violin sonatas, or late string quartets. The documentary contains rare and valuable newsreel footage of Nielsen, along with numerous photographs. The narration includes extracts from letters Nielsen and his wife wrote to one another. The documentary contains an adequate amount of information for a 59-minute film, but I came away thinking that it could have been more informative, particularly with regard to his formal training as a composer. On the plus side, the film is hugely entertaining. Review of the symphonies: I have owned the DNRSO / Schønwandt studio recordings since the summer of 2004 and consider them to be among the greatest achievements of the CD era. I listen most frequently to the 4th and 5th symphonies, and the CD performances of both of these works are absolutely superb. The DVD performance of the 4th fully matches its CD counterpart – the tempos are almost identical and the two performances have the same basic sound and feel. The DVD performance of the 5th, however, differs noticeably from its CD counterpart. The CD 5th creates and maintains an almost unbearable tension throughout, whereas the DVD 5th never really gets off the ground. Most of the problem can be traced to rushed tempos – the 5th is a weighty work that in my view benefits from a deliberate approach. The DVD 5th also is hobbled by subpar balance among the various sections. I haven’t yet gotten around to listening to the other four symphonies, but they won’t change my opinion that the DVD performances as a group are a mixed bag. Overall recommendation: If you are interested primarily in the symphony performances, by all means buy the DNRSO / Schønwandt studio recordings on CD. The performances are unbeatable and the CD booklets are informative. If you already have these CD performances (or others you are happy with) and are interested primarily in the documentary, go ahead and buy the DVD set. The documentary alone is worth the price of admission – you can treat the DVD performances as “special features” of varying quality. While you are at it, pick up a copy of Anne Øland’s traversal of Nielsen’s complete works for solo piano (two CDs on the Classico and Scandinavian Classics labels). Her performances are absolutely authoritative and deserve a place in the collection of every Nielsen fan.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.