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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. 2014, Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical.
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2128 SACD [64:34]

No sooner had Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s Nielsen First and Third blazed its way through the musical firmament than their Second and Sixth appeared. So dazzled was I by the former that I declared it a Recording of the Month; those performances certainly impressed me far more than the initial instalment in this series, the Fourth and Fifth, which I felt didn’t augur well for the rest of the cycle. How wrong I was to be so high-handed.

Oramo’s cycle is up against Alan Gilbert’s New York Philharmonic one on Dacapo, which has just been completed with the Fifth and Sixth. I’ve reviewed their entire series and, despite my enthusiasm for the Second and Third, the rest of Gilbert’s traversal strikes me as terribly uneven. Time and again I hauled out Schmidt, Schønwandt and Saraste, all of whom get under the skin of these symphonies in a way that Gilbert seldom does. Also, I suspect this Nielsen anniversary year will see a box from John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos; hearing the off-air recording of their brisk, clear-eyed account of the Second makes me think it could be a strong contender if or when it appears on disc.

BIS have recorded all the Nielsen symphonies before, with Myung-Whun Chung/Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony (review) and Osmo Vänskä and the BBC Scottish SO (review). At first I felt Chung’s account of the Second – recorded in 1983 – was too ‘plain’ for my tastes, but it’s grown on me over the years. Vänskä’s recording, made in 2001, has its good moments, but taken in toto it doesn’t have the sweep and seamless dynamism that I find in rival versions. The soundstage is a little narrow too, and the orchestra aren’t as polished as they can be.

Staying with the Second, I have an off-air recording of Oramo and the BBC Symphony playing the piece at the Barbican in December 2014. As expected it’s a taut and responsive reading; the Allegro collerico is especially well characterised, the phlegmatic second movement is superbly constructed, the melancholic third is suitably angst-ridden, and the sanguine finale is as buoyant and energetic as one could wish. There’s absolutely no shortage of temperament there, which bodes well for the BIS version.

If anything the Stockholm performance has even greater focus and energy than the London one; Oramo certainly pushes his orchestra to the limit, and yet the first movement never seems rushed or overdriven. Indeed, there’s a sense that the conductor is playing the music for all it’s worth, and his willing band are well up to the challenge. The second movement is perfectly paced, with no sign of paralysing parentheses or the unnecessary emphases that disfigure so much of Gilbert’s recorded Nielsen.

That the music ebbs and flows so naturally here and in the restless third movement is testimony to Oramo’s sure grasp of the symphony’s architecture, both internal and external. As in his accounts of the First and Third he builds truly commanding climaxes; indeed, there’s something of Sibelius’s imposing topography at times. The lithe finale, briskly done, is forthright but never fierce, and it’s underpinned by some fine playing from the timps. All sections of the orchestra excel, the all-conquering brass especially, and the full, weighty recording is as thrilling as it gets. Frankly, it makes the Dacapo sound and balances for Gilbert seem rather synthetic by comparison.

Goodness, this a riveting start to the programme. What of the Sixth, about which Jack Lawson wrote so passionately in his enthusiastic review of the Gilbert recording? I don’t see the work in those life-and-death terms – not in that performance, at any rate – but I do recognise that Nielsen is in stark, forbidding territory at this point. Under Oramo the Tempo giusto has a troubling air of equivocation that never allows the music to settle; he doesn’t quite convey the Ivesian quirkiness that Michael Schønwandt finds here, but then he more than makes up for that with a reading that’s corded with muscle and sinew. This creates a very tense and threatening milieu in which all certainties – if they exist at all – are lost.

I castigated Gilbert for playing the spectral Humoresque with all the lights blazing; Oramo keeps them dimmed, and the highly contrasted result is much more unsettling. The snare drum and those strange woodwind figures are splendid, while the Adagio duels with despair in a way that recalls Mahler at his bleakest. Nielsen’s spare, cut-to-the-quick orchestration here is just astonishing, with so little seeming to portend so much. Oramo is as tough and uncompromising in the finale as it’s possible to be; he springs those nightmarish waltzes with savage glee and the oafish irruptions – so often a cue for ridiculous balances and false histrionics – are perfectly judged. As if that weren’t enough the sense of titanic struggle is movingly caught.

There are many fine versions of the Sinfonia Semplice in the catalogue, but in the face of Oramo’s overwhelming account there’s little point in trotting them out for comparison. To put it bluntly, this the most penetrating, the most complete, account of Nielsen’s last symphony that I have ever encountered. Oramo’s Four Temperaments, which has all the variety and character one could possibly want, isn’t far behind. Both performances seem so unassailably right, and the committed – nay, audacious – playing of the Stockholm Philharmonic is a wonder to behold.

A feisty, unfettered Second and a benchmark Sixth; a triumph for all concerned.

Dan Morgan



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