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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29/FS 76 ‘The inextinguishable’ (1914-1916) [35:15]
Symphony No. 5, Op. 50/FS 97 (1921-1922) [33:50]
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. Stockholm Concert Hall, August 2012 (No.4), June 2013 (No. 5).
Reviewed as a high-res download (24-bit/96kHz)
BIS BIS-SACD-2028 [69:46]

Listening to several versions of these symphonies in preparation for this review reminded me of just how splendid they are. As a fairly recent convert to Nielsen’s music I’m still in that enviable phase of delight and discovery; the scores sound perennially fresh and interesting, and they yield easily to different approaches. This new coupling, the first in a projected Oramo/Royal Stockholm cycle, isn’t the only one in the BIS catalogue; Myung-Whun Chung and Neeme Järvi shared the symphonies and concertos, a box that Rob Barnett welcomed back in 2002 (review).
 
I’m not entirely persuaded by Chung’s Nielsen, which feels too much like a work in progress, but the Ole Schmidt, Herbert Blomstedt, Michael Schønwandt and Jukka-Pekka Saraste sets strike me as more fully formed. The LSO play heroically for Schmidt, whose sense of the music’s architecture is hard to beat, and the sonics on the Regis reissue (now Alto ALC2505) are very good for their age. Blomstedt and his San Francisco band (Decca) are sophisticated and propulsive, if a little too streamlined at times; meanwhile Saraste and his Finnish Radio forces (Finlandia) have a raw energy that’s particularly apt in the Fourth. Schønwandt (originally Dacapo, now Naxos) may seem steady and unspectacular by comparison, but he’s never dull; indeed, his plain-spoken way with Nielsen seems more distinguished with each hearing.
 
There are too many fine sets to detail here, not least the Ormandy/Bernstein one for Sony (review); and then there’s Sir Colin Davis’s LSO Live series, which Jack Lawson felt was an ‘almost but not quite’ (review). More promising is Dacapo’s project with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, the first instalment of which I found deeply satisfying (review). Now we have this keenly awaited cycle from the Stockholm orchestra and their chief conductor Sakari Oramo. He’s had good notices in Birmingham and he’s been in charge of the BBCSO since the 2013 Proms.
 
Nielsen’s war-time Fourth is known for its indomitable spirit, and I’ve yet to hear a performance where this doesn’t shine through. Oramo is no exception, even if he isn’t as striking or as immediate as, say, Saraste or Schønwandt. I suppose one could characterise his as a supremely civilised account of the work, but will that do? No, I’m afraid it won’t. Yes there’s nobility and stoicism, but where’s the tugging undertow? Without this essential tension the first movement sounds much too bland for my taste. As for the recording it’s fine if you crank up the volume; otherwise it’s a tad distant.
 
Happily the fleeting, shadowy landscape of the second movement is much better realised, and it’s here that the ultra-fine detail of the BIS recording comes into its own. For all its felicities, though, I found it hard to engage with Oramo’s reading, which is just too self-effacing for its own good. That’s especially true of the third movement, whose dialectic of dragging timps and rising/falling strings ought to be more achingly felt than it is here. Listen to any of the versions I’ve listed and you’ll find a far greater sense of accumulation and thrust. At times Oramo lets thr pulse falter too, and the music is delivered as if in a series of parentheses, rather than as a free-flowing whole. As for the duelling timps they aren’t remotely visceral or menacing.
 
I so wanted to welcome this new Fourth, but it‘s an also-ran; indeed, this version has increased my admiration for the Schønwandt, which has all the latent energy and sharp contrasts the piece demands. Not only that, the Dacapo/Naxos sound is superb. Perhaps the kindest thing one can say about Oramo’s Nielsen thus far is that it’s well played; if only it were more strongly characterised. Besides, it’s risky to start off with two of Nielsen’s greatest symphonies; I just hope the rest of the cycle comes somewhat closer to expectations than this.
 
What about the dark-hued Fifth? Schønwandt’s account is as persuasive as ever, although Saraste’s is the one I return to most. His first movement is angular and uncompromising, and be brings out the grim, Shostakovich-like march tunes better than most. His Finnish players are wonderfully febrile throughout, and the mounting tension is almost unbearable. The prominent snare drum is never far away, so even moments of repose are ringed with anxiety. After Saraste’s nervy account Oramo’s seems too safe, too cultivated. What does that mean for the symphony’s more grotesque elements? They barely register, is the short answer.
 
It’s all so remote, an abstruse philosophical skirmish rather than a hard, physical battle. Contrasts aren’t as starkly drawn as they should be either, although Oramo does bring thrilling heft to the tuttis. Trouble is there’s little sense that victory is hard won, and that makes for a weak and fitful first half. Alas, the second isn’t much better. True, Oramo is more urgent than before, and there’s a pleasing interplay of textures and rhythms, but that’s not enough. Despite occasional flares both this and the Fourth burn with all too low a flame, and that’s fatal in works as passionate and penetrating as these.
 
Dispiriting; doesn’t augur well for the rest of this cycle.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei
 
Masterwork Index: Nielsen symphony 4 ~~ Symphony 5


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