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Carl NIELSEN (1865 - 1931)
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments Op. 16 (1902)
Symphony No. 5 Op. 50 (1922)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä.
Rec. City Hall, Glasgow 2001-08-02/03 (No.2), and 2000-01-22/23 (No. 5). DDD
BIS CD-1289 [71’23"]



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This is the second release in this series. I haven’t heard the previous release, which received rave reviews in the press, when it was released. My one overall view about the current disc is that I wish Vänskä had recorded his Nielsen series with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra rather than the BBC Scottish Orchestra. It is not that there is anything wrong with the current ensemble; it is just that I hear a slightly stilted style of playing which, I am sure, would not have been audibly present with the Finnish ensemble. Like British orchestras and Elgar, there is a feeling of absolute rightness with Scandinavian ensembles playing their own music. It must be something to do with forests, or something else of this nature.

Given this slight shortcoming, what of the present performances? The Four Temperaments gets off to a flying start, with a headlong tempo, which is very exciting and exactly in the spirit of the work. Very quickly, Vanska pulls back the tempo much more than I feel he needs to, and then rushes off again in a great hurry. This whole movement is characterised by many violent tempo changes, which finds the orchestra a little uncomfortable, although the brass section is having a field day.

This symphony was performed initially without a detailed programme in 1902, conducted by the composer. It was well received, but not with the rapture of some of his later works. Many years later, Nielsen was asked to provide programme notes for this symphony, and went into much greater detail. Evidently in earlier years, before the completion of the symphony, Nielsen had visited a country inn on Sjaelland. On the wall of the inn was a comic picture, divided into four quarters, each section depicting the various temperaments – choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic. The picture of the choleric figure, for example, was riding a horse with a long sword in his hand that he was waving wildly about in the air; his eyes seemed to be about to jump out of his head and his hair was standing madly on end all around his face, which was screwed up with anger and devilish hatred. This caused the composer much merriment, and he used this and the other three similarly comic pictures as the inspiration for this symphony.

I am not so sure I can picture these scenes directly in the music, but no matter. If they formed the basic inspiration for the composer in writing this symphony, then so much the better.

By the time Nielsen wrote the Symphony No. 5, generally considered to be his masterpiece, he was a much more assured composer with a superb sense of movement and style. It is unnamed, and is in two long movements. It basically deals with the conflicts between opposing forces in nature. In this aspect, it is basically similar to the implied programmes of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Symphonies. In the 5th, the tension comes in the form of a side drum with which the player is instructed by the composer to disrupt progress by improvising and causing as much chaos as possible. The orchestra has to concentrate on what it is doing, and swamp the poor soloists with a wonderfully uplifting melody for massed strings, brass and woodwind. I have never heard a performance where the side drum is successful in its efforts, but it has come close in a couple of live concerts.

Vänskä’s performance is secure, as you would expect, since if the side drum really had won, it would be re-recorded to put things right. The second movement is a great outpouring of joy, with a rumbustious fugue forming the central part of the finale. This is played with the right amount of joy, but there is still an inhibition there, not present in the superb (mono) recording by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra on Dutton. Here, the conductor (Thomas Jensen) has just the right amount of flexibility and absolute control over his forces to make you understand what this symphony is all about.

So, not up there with the best, but a very creditable effort, superbly recorded and annotated by BIS. If you are collecting this series, do not hesitate, but if you want to hear primeval Nielsen at his greatest, go for the Dutton. Although the recording is early fifties mono, you will be astonished by how much detail you will be able to hear. The 5th is coupled with the 1st Symphony and the Helios Overture on Dutton CDLXT 2502, or better still on a Danacord release with a live set of all six symphonies conducted by Launy Grøndahl, Thomas Jensen and Erik Tuxen, the three pioneer conductors for this repertoire.

John Phillips

 



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