The 150th anniversary of Carl Nielsen’s birth gives record labels and concert planners a chance to put more of the great Dane’s music before the public. The symphonies are reasonably well represented on disc and I’m hearing more of them on BBC Radio 3, but it’s the lesser-known Nielsen that’s likely to prove most revelatory. That’s certainly true of his ‘ardent, apple-cheeked’ Songs for Choir
, which I reviewed
recently. I’ve also been working my way through Alan Gilbert’s set of Nielsen symphonies, and while I found it intermittently impressive my overall impression is not terribly positive. That’s also the case with the first release in Oramo’s BIS series, which I felt didn’t augur well for the rest of the cycle (review
). I fervently hoped this second instalment would be very different.
Nielsen’s First, completed when he was in his twenties, is a remarkably
assured work whose see-sawing lyricism and fierceness should make for
a thrilling ride. The danger is that unless it’s boldly drawn
this symphony is apt to sound random or rhetorical (compare Gilbert
it only takes a few minutes to realise that Oramo doesn’t fall
into these traps. Yes, he is crisp and incisive, but there’s a
world of difference between that and the relentlessness of those who
simply push too hard. Something else that’s crystal clear at this
early stage is that Oramo has a marvellous sense of the music’s
architecture, both internal and external. Moreover, the Stockholm orchestra
respond to his direction with playing of terrific passion and bite.
Goodness, this is a Nielsen First to sweep listeners off their feet
and blow old favourites into the proverbial weeds. I recently had occasion
to commend BIS for their bar-raising sonics, and I must do so here as
well. Punishing dynamics and a wide, deep sound-stage make this the
most immersive and exciting version of this symphony that I know. By
contrast the tensions generated in Gilbert's account seem curiously
synthetic. Interpretively Oramo’s Allegro orgoglioso
is like no other; indeed, he brings a Carlos-Kleiber-like intensity
and grip to the music-making, while also allowing Nielsen’s reflective
passages to breathe and bend most beautifully.
Seldom have I heard a classically-aligned work teem with such temperament
and still retain its graceful proportions. That sense of scale is carried
over into Nielsen’s trenchant tuttis, which blaze but don’t
self-immolate. The Andante
, its dark surge and retreat so compellingly
realised, also shows what a fine orchestra this is; all sections excel,
while individual timbres are superbly caught. Ironically, it’s
Oramo, not Gilbert, who conveys that daring, caught-on-the-wing feel
of a live performance. The latter’s risk-averse reading of the
First simply doesn’t do it justice.
I felt Oramo was inclined to parenthesise in his Nielsen Fourth and
Fifth, but there’s absolutely no sign of that here. His Allegro
is a case in point; seamless, engaging and perfectly paced
the music brims with a boisterous character you won’t hear in
Gilbert’s recording. I find the latter just too calculated for
my tastes, so Oramo’s more easeful – and illuminating –
method is most welcome. Even that fiery finale is shaped and projected
in such a way that it never sounds overly insistent; and what lovely,
confident woodwind playing, febrile strings and rampant brass. The taut
and commanding timps must be mentioned in dispatches, too.
Oramo’s Nielsen Third is no less gripping. Those assertive, hammering
figures in the Allegro espansivo
and the music’s restless
nature are nicely presented. The climaxes are convincingly built, too;
indeed, here and elsewhere there’s something of Ole
’s ability to range and terrace the music, and that
makes for a most imposing edifice. Oramo’s also alert to Nielsen’s
opposing rhythms – now rippling, now raucous – and that
adds to the sense of a riveting dialogue. There are no fumbles or pauses
in the conversation, but then this is an impassioned and highly literate
debate from start to finish.
The Andante pastorale
must be one of the most striking
things Nielsen ever wrote, and this radiant reading – with its
– surely confirms that. Even
the hint of a gathering storm à la
Beethoven or Berlioz can’t
dispel the music’s mood of contentment. The pure-toned soprano
and baritone soloists are ideally blended and balanced. After that the
strides forth in its seven-league boots, and Nielsen’s
interlocking musical ideas click neatly into place; alas, that's not
always the case with rival performances, Gilbert's especially. Frankly,
if one had any doubts about Oramo’s credentials in this repertoire
his bold, expertly crafted finale should dispel them for good.
It was rash of me to dismiss Oramo’s Nielsen cycle on the basis
of its first instalment, for this follow-up is everything that one wasn’t.
Put bluntly, you won’t find more compelling and better recorded
performances of these two symphonies than this.
This is a field-leading release, both musically and sonically; roll on Two and Six.