Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 ‘The Inextinguishable’ – Work No. 88 in our collection

Carl August Nielsen (09.06.1865 – 0.10.1931) was a Danish musician, conductor and violinist. Nielsen is generally regarded as Denmark’s most prominent composer and is particularly known for his six symphonies, his Wind Quintet and his concertos for violin, flute and clarinet. Nielsen maintained the reputation of a musical outsider during his lifetime, both in his own country and internationally. It was only later that his works firmly entered the international repertoire, accelerating in popularity from the 1960s onwards largely due to their promotion by Leonard Bernstein and others.

Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 (FS76) ‘The Inextinguishable’, composed from 1914-1916, and premiered in Copenhagen opens with one of the most electrifying jolts of energy in symphonic history, and it continues with the same irresistible dynamism for the next 35 minutes or so! This tremendous work is simultaneously a war symphony and a document of the violence and intensity and emotion of the times in which it was written.

For repeated listening we would opt for Herbert Blomstedt’s fine version with the San Francisco Symphony. In this performance the opening has splendid fire and Blomstedt isn’t frightened of letting things rip. The finale, with its exhilarating dialogue between the two timpanists, is again delivered superbly. This is a safe recommendation, but perhaps too tame for some listeners. If you fall into the latter category then I would recommend Colin Davis’ live version with the LSO, recorded when he was in his 80s, which is the fastest and most explosive account that I have ever heard!

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