Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments, Op. 16/FS 29 (1901-1902) [31:21]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Semplice, FS 116 (1924-1925) [32:32]
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. June 2014, Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden
BIS BIS-2128 SACD [64:34]

This release has already been praised as ‘triumph for all concerned” in download form by Dan Morgan, and in its CD/SACD form I can only agree wholeheartedly. My first real experience with the disc was during a long-distance drive. Despite the rather lo-fi nature of my car stereo and the noisy surroundings it was clear from the outset that this is a recording which presents Carl Nielsen as he should be – all musical guns blazing, no compromises, everyone as sharp as a needle and bells and whistles pointing in the right direction.

This is as ‘wide-awake’ a pair of performances of Nielsen symphonies as I can recall hearing. Since that car journey I have been listening to Sir Colin Davis’s complete cycle on the LSO Live label, and this makes one realise just how powerful Sakari Oramo’s are. Davis’s LSO set is good, but seems to hark back to recordings which are effective up to a point – that point being a boundary which needs to be broken through to create something really jaw-dropping. Oramo’s conducting takes Nielsen’s scores as written, but makes sure that every accent, each dynamic layer and those all-important expressive colours all make their mark in remarkable technicolour but without unwanted added layers of interpretation. The first movement of the Second Symphony bowls you over with sheer energy, emphasising the tender delicacy of the second movement and the expansive nobility of the third. Tempi are ideal for the nature of the orchestra and the non-intrusive Stockholm acoustic, the music breathing with a natural elasticity which builds and releases climaxes with a finely judged organic sense of flow. The RSPO relishes the jaunty insolence of the final Allegro sanguineo, and every little corner can be pointed to with a wink and a smile as too how glorious it all is.

A grand salute then to all concerned for the Second Symphony, but my jubilation in finding such a resoundingly affirmative performance of the oft misunderstood Sixth Symphony knows no bounds. As the composer said, “there are merry things in it”, but you can’t have light without shadow, and Death and the Devil can also lead us on a merry dance. The title Sinfonia semplice never seemed more ironic than when placed against this performance, which grabs each stabbing line and argumentative interjection in the first movement like roughly handled puppeteer’s strings – making us into those awestruck puppets; dragged hither and thither with no control over events both terrifyingly violent and bewitchingly beautiful. The ‘modern music’ of the second movement mocks and jeers the avant-garde, turning it into a circus act which amuses and disturbs, but on which in the end we can all look with beatific condescension. David Fannning’s booklet notes point out the Bartókian nature of the intense string fugue which infuses the third movement with a potent but enigmatic atmosphere, in music whose transitional feel results in a strange ambiguity of direction. Thus becalmed, we expect urgency from the finale, but this too is frustrated in variations which all too easily dissolve into chamber music or passages of extreme elegiac expressiveness, the elements of which refuse to unite into any kind of organic elegance. Nielsen has said all he wanted to say, and now he is saying what he damn-well likes. We are fortunate to have a team willing to give this piece such an emphatically affirmative performance in this BIS release. I had a listen to Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic (review) by way of a recent comparison and, while also good, there is much less intensity in the first movement and too much expressiveness in the sparing notes of the last, with vibrato-laden contributions lingering overly on moments which need to be occupied with their surrounding relationships rather than with themselves. I still think Gilbert’s Second Symphony is terrific (review), but all-round I would now give my laurels to Oramo.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)

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