Saturday, May 22, 2010

Special Tribute: Bryden Thomson conducts Nielsen 4th & 6th Symphony

Composer(s): Carl NIELSEN
Conductor: Bryden "Jack" THOMSON
Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Label: Chandos
Catalog #: CHAN 9047
Format: CD (1 Disc)
Time: 70 min

Text Credit: David C. F. Wright
The death of Bryden Thomson in November 1991 was a painful blow to music. He was 63. Undoubtedly one of the most able conductors of his time, he possessed many qualities which, because of his inherent modesty, may not be fully recognised. He always spoke of getting to know the music, which statement belied his evident understanding of it; he believed that he was the servant of the music never suggesting that he could add anything that was not already implicit. Indeed he was not concerned with his personal advancement - only to realise faithfully each composer's wishes. Into his conducting he brought his conviction that the correct tempo was the key to a worthy performance and this made for one of his greatest qualities, namely the ability to ensure the most perfect clarity of orchestral texture, a phenomenal gift that is rare to the point of uniqueness Among his other many splendid attributes was that he was probably the best orchestral accompanist Britain has ever produced. This was fostered by his conducting of the Royal Ballet on tour for 18 months in the early 1960s and his natural gift for identifying with other performers - part of the fundamental goodness of his character.

Born in Ayr in 1928, his interest in music did not really begin until he was about 15. At the Royal Scottish Academy of Music he won almost every prize. He furthered his studies in Hamburg and on his return to Scotland became deputy to Ian Whyte, conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Later, after a brief return to teaching, he was conductor to the Norwegian Opera and developed his interest in the Scandinavian repertoire. In 1966 he became associate conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra. Two years later he was appointed principal conductor of the BBC Northern Orchestra and the general opinion is that it was he who so built up the orchestra as to establish its claim to a new title, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Clearly under his five-year conductorship, the orchestra widened both its repertoire and abilities. From 1977 to 1985 he was music director of the Ulster Orchestra, then almost completely unknown. As with the orchestra in Manchester, he built up this body into the highly professional and universally recognised orchestra it now is. For a year he was with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra and between 1984 and 1987 conducted the Radio Telefis Eirann Symphony Orchestra in Dublin. It is entirely due to 'Jack' Thomson that this orchestra too became such a magnificent group of players. He introduced to Dublin all the symphonies of Beethoven, Sibelius, Bruckner, Nielsen and Dvorák. He also performed works by Irish composers such as Gerard Victory, Aloys Fleischmann and James Wilson; when in Cardiff he had similarly given works by such composers as David Wynne, Alun Hoddinott and a memorable cycle of all twelve symphonies by Daniel Jones.

It is his legacy of recordings for Chandos which will enable people to value the work of this superlative conductor. He recorded all the Bax symphonies with the London Philharmonic, apart from No. 4 which he recorded with the Ulster Orchestra. With this now highly-polished Belfast orchestra he recorded the works of Hamilton Harty. With the LSO he recorded the nine symphonies of Vaughan Williams which have deservedly won critical acclaim. His Elgar recordings have caused Elgar-haters to listen with interest; his Walton performances are as good as one could ever expect.

Jack knew what he wanted from orchestras. This occasionally brought him into conflict with some individuals and administrators, earning him a reputation for being peppery. But all this was worth while, as can be measured by the results. His recordings of the Nielsen and Martinu symphonies have discovered a new world for so many, and that, in itself, is evidence of the debt of gratitude we all owe this devoted servant of music. His like may not be seen again.

Reviewer: R.L. (from
This is the last release (and without question the best) in Bryden Thomson's Nielsen cycle. The Fourth Symphony has a splendid fire and enthusiasm, and calls to mind the ardent intensity of the pioneering Danish recordings by Launy Grondahl (HMV, 5/52—nla) and Thomas Jensen (Dana cord—nla). The orchestra play as if their lives depend on it and the violence underlying the score makes a strong impact, both at the opening and in the finale. In the slow movement the string playing has a fervour and anguish that call to mind Nielsen's own image of the melodic line soaring "like the eagle on the wind". I have heard performances of greater finesse, including a remarkably unaffected concert one by the Swedish Radio Orchestra under Leif Segerstam (and Blomstedt's LP and CD versions on HMV and Decca with the Danish Radio-10/75, nla—and San Francisco orchestras respectively, and also Igor Markevitch and the Royal Danish Orchestra—briefly available on DG, 1/67), but few that convey the spirit of this remarkable score to such telling effect. (Incidentally Ole Schmidt's account with the LSO on Unicorn-Kanchana--part of a three-disc set—is another, despite some sonic limitations.) In any event, this newcomer makes a useful alternative to the Blomstedt and Andrew Davis (Virgin Classics) listed above, both of them coupled with the Fifth Symphony.
In some ways I prefer Thomson's Sixth to any current rival, Including Blomstedt's cultured and splendidly recorded account on Decca. He strikes exactly the right tempo for the first movement, and indeed seems as every bit inside it as was Jensen (also on Decca, 12/54—nla). No praise I hasten to add, could be higher. Nor have I ever heard anyone make better sense of the problematic "Humoreske", which Thomson takes at a steadier pace than most rival conductors, so that its questioning spirit registers properly. The "Proposta seria" is as eloquent and searching as any I have heard. We are now well served on CD for this symphony; both Blomstedt and Berglund (RCA) are excellent, while the Salonen/Sony Classical account with the Swedish Radio orchestra is the best in his cycle. However, to my mind, the newcomer from Chandos brings one closer to this extraordinary work than any other. Strongly recommended.


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