Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
The Six Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 in G minor Op. 7/FS16 (1891-92) [35:45]
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments Op. 16/FS 29 (1901-02) [33:41]
Helios Overture Op. 17/FS 32 (1903)* [10:58]
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Espansiva Op. 27/FS 60 (1910-11) [36:14]
Anu Komsi (soprano); Christian Immler (baritone)
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable Op. 29/FS 76 (1914-16) [35:31]
Saga-Drøm Op 39/FS 46 (1907-08) * [7:43]
Symphony No. 5 Op. 50/FS 97 (1921-22) [36:40]
Symphony No. 6 FS116 (1924-25) [33:44]
Pan og Syrinx Op. 49/FS 87 (1917-18)* [7:49]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/*Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
rec. City Hall, Glasgow, Scotland August 2000 (Symphony No. 1); August 2001 (Symphony No. 2); March 2002 (Symphony No. 3); May 2001 (Symphony No. 4); January 2000 (Symphony No. 5); August 1999 (Symphony No. 6). *Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland January 2006. DDD
BIS-CD-1839/40 [3 CDs: 81:30 + 80:34 + 79:19]
This exceptionally generous set brings together the cycle of Nielsen symphonies that Osmo Vänskä set down during the time that he was at the helm of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. At its heart lie very fine performances of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies but everything else in the package has strong claims on the attention of collectors.
The Fourth symphony receives a completely convincing performance from Vänskä. There’s great energy in the first movement right from the very start, where Nielsen’s music just erupts, as it should. Throughout this set the playing of the BBCSSO is excellent and in this movement it’s the contribution of the brass – sonorous and incisive – that particularly catches the ear. Later on, in the second movement, which is close to a Brahmsian symphonic intermezzo, the woodwind carry most of the musical argument and they don’t disappoint. The strings take centre-stage at the start of the third movement and the searing violins in the opening measures set the tone for an intense performance. At 5:27 the first of a series of staccato woodwind interjections, breaking into the hushed reverie of the strings, heralds the start of the ascent to the ardent climax of the movement, which Vänskä and his players deliver superbly. The finale is vibrant and thrusting. The onslaughts from the two timpanists are savage and presage the disruptive efforts of the side-drummer in the Fifth symphony. The passage between 5:17 and 6:10 is like a musical thunderstorm, superbly played and recorded. After this conflict the final triumph of the music, though hard-won, is marvellous to hear and in these final pages the timpani, previously destructive, now add grandeur at the end of a most impressive reading of this engrossing symphony.
The Fifth is just as successful. From the glacial, threatening opening, Vänskä’s conception of the first movement – one of the most original symphonic movements I know – is masterly. Those collectors who acquire this set will soon discover that the BIS engineers have produced magnificent results. One example of their excellence is the thrilling way in which the percussion is caught from 4:17 onwards. The Adagio (from 10:45) is warmly expressive at the start, which makes the shrill woodwind interjections from 14:44 all the more unsettling and once the brass join in (from 15:55) the cumulative power of the performance is tremendous. I want to comment in some detail on one crucial aspect of this performance, Ever since I first heard Jascha Horenstein’s 1969 recording for Unicorn I have despaired of ever hearing, whether live or on disc, a side-drummer with the courage and imagination to match the ferocious onslaught of Alfred Dukes’ playing for Horenstein. However, in the BBCSSO’s Heather Corbett we have such a percussionist. She is quite outstanding in confronting the slow-moving music that her colleagues are playing (between 16:34 and 18:10) and – praise be! – she even adds rim shots after 17:36. Her combative contribution makes the victory of the adagio over the drumming all the more imposing to hear. In the wonderfully effective subdued closing pages the clarinet playing of Yann Ghiro may not quite erase memories of John McCaw on the Horenstein disc but it’s a close run thing. Vänskä leads a gripping and powerfully projected traversal of the second movement. In all respects this is one of the best accounts of the Fifth that I’ve encountered on disc.
The Espansiva is a conspicuous success too. Vänskä invests the opening of I with an outpouring of vital energy but, as the movement unfolds, he shows that he can relax when the music requires it. His reading of II is expertly controlled and he obtains some first rate playing from the orchestra. The wordless soloists are good (from 5:59) and they’re well balanced; the voices aren’t too prominent but, instead, are a part of the overall texture, as should be the case. At the start of IV the fine, broad tune strides forward in a sturdy and confident manner. I thoroughly enjoyed Vänskä’s account of this movement, culminating in the apotheosis of the big tune and a jubilant ending.
The two earliest symphonies also fare well. The first movement of Number 1 fairly bounds along. Vänskä evidently relishes this youthful, uninhibited music and his account of the finale similarly bursts with vitality. In between, the second movement is warmly expressive; the BBCSSO strings excel here. The reading of The Four Temperaments finds Vänskä responsive to all its moods. Of special note is the very fine account of II, an impressively eloquent composition. Here once again we find the strings in fine fettle and Vänskä builds the climaxes in an authoritative fashion. I find his approach to the exuberant, extrovert finale completely convincing.
I must admit that I’ve never really understood the Sixth symphony. Mind you, I was somewhat cheered to learn that, apparently, it took the noted Nielsen authority, Robert Simpson, a long time to ‘get’ this work. I find it very elusive. That said, hearing it as part of a cycle enabled me to hark back to the symphony’s two immediate predecessors when listening to Vänskä’s reading of the first movement and this made more sense of the music. It seems to me that there are definite ‘pre-echoes’ of Shostakovich in this symphony and particularly of his Fourth and Fifteenth symphonies, not least in Nielsen’s second movement, which is scored primarily for wind and percussion. This is as sardonic as anything that came from Shostakovich’s pen, not least the ‘raspberries’ from the trombone. Vänskä directs a pert and agile reading. The strings come into their own in III, and eloquently so in this performance. But what are we to make of the finale? This is a theme and nine variations and, for me, it’s the real puzzle of this work. What was Nielsen getting at here? I find it a most perplexing end to his career as a symphonist. Whilst I don’t pretend to understand the music of the finale it is clear that this present performance features agile and acute playing. Once again the engineers are on fine form too: for example the percussion, especially the bass drum, is reported with stunning realism in the short ninth variation (8:20 – 8:44).
As if it were not enough to have all six Nielsen symphonies in such fine performances, BIS add to the attractiveness of this collection by including three generous ‘fillers’ in the shape of shorter orchestral works, one to complete each disc. For these pieces Vänskä directs the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in performances that are as excellent as they are idiomatic and authoritative.
This is a compelling box, offering a Nielsen cycle of uncommon distinction and authority. It would be hard to better Vänskä’s performances not least for their consistency. BIS has a deserved reputation for the quality of its recorded sound and these discs are in the finest traditions of the house. There’s good bloom on the sound and just the right amount of resonance and, above all, the sound is crystal clear, allowing an abundance of detail to register very naturally. The sound is completely truthful and realistic and there’s an impressive dynamic range, which allows the biggest climaxes to register thrillingly.
Collectors who have not yet sampled Osmo Vänskä in Nielsen should hasten to make good that omission by investing in this excellent set.
John Quinn

see also review of individual releases by John Phillips (2 & 5) and Rob Barnett (3 & 4)

Masterwork Index: Nielsen symphonies

Downloads available from

A compelling box, offering a Nielsen cycle of uncommon distinction and authority in superb sound.