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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 (1891-2) [33:50]
Symphony No. 3, Sinfonia Espansiva Op. 27 (1910-11) [37:48]*
Anu Komsi (soprano); Karl-Magnus Fredriksson (baritone)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. January 2013 (No. 1), May 2014 (No. 3), Stockholm Concert Hall
BIS BIS-2048 SACD [72:28]

Sakari Oramo, as is well known, succeeded Rattle as chief conductor of the CBSO. Rattle raised the orchestra's profile with intelligent and adventurous programming during his 18 years, but Oramo clearly succeeded in marking out his own distinctive territory, his championing of Elgar and John Foulds being among the most surprising features.

Oramo has now recorded all six Nielsen symphonies with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Bis released Nos. 4 and 5 in February this year (review; review), and this recording of 1 and 3 appeared soon afterwards to complement their disc of 2 and 6 (review).

The First Symphony is often patronisingly described as “a bold statement for a first effort” or similar. Nielsen himself, when looking back to this composition, which he had written as a 26-year-old in 1892, never felt any embarrassment, recognising it as a true reflection of what he stood for at the time. Oramo's belief in the work shines out from this performance, making one consider this strongly characterised work as among the finest of all early symphonies. Sometimes a special conductor comes along with the ability to make a symphony sound greater than one had imagined and Oramo does just that. I have never heard such a convincing and thrilling performance of this work – the opening movement proud and aspirational, the Andante emotionally involving, the third movement purposeful and the finale exultant. Nielsen's finest works have a healthy, invigorating, good-to-be-alive quality which Oramo fully realises.

The Sinfonia Espansiva begins with one of Nielsen's glorious, exultant opening paragraphs – 137 bars in this case. Oramo conveys tremendous energy and strength here – in other words, just as it should be. In the calmer passage which follows (molto tranquillo) the string fugato - not long after rehearsal number 10 – is realised as Nielsen marked, with extra “stings” at the viola and second violin entries. This calmer (tranquillo) passage does not become becalmed, as is sometimes the case and Oramo paces this substantial movement (eleven and a half minutes) admirably, while strongly characterising such passages as the elegant waltz in G sharp minor at figure 15. Oramo's attention to detail is again effective in the second movement, where he nicely points the accents on the syncopated notes in the woodwind passage after figure 2. The string interjections here are truly impassioned and the two wordless voices cope pretty well with their far from easy parts which include many wide intervals. In the third movement I very much like the way Oramo brings out the demonic elements, unsuspected at first, which begin to appear, with sharp accents in the brass just after figure 2, and the low fortissimo bassoons (fifth bar of 7). This darker side throws into relief the pastoral sections. The finale is majestic and unhurried and again Oramo's attention to dynamic gradings could serve as a model to those conductors who seem not to take them seriously enough. Forte, fortissimo and fortississimo are always clearly differentiated while throughout the symphony pianissimos are consistently observed.

This disc deserves a strong recommendation for Oramo's inspired interpretation of the First Symphony alone, but his Third also is excellent. His empathy with Nielsen is obvious, further enhancing both his own and, I hope, the composer's status. The Royal Stockholm Orchestra plays very well indeed and the recording does full justice to these outstanding performances. Nielsen authority David Fanning's historically informative notes are also typically engaging and thought-provoking.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)



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