Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 (Sinfonia espansiva); Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Nielsen
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Symphony No. 3 (Sinfonia espansiva); Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable)
PERFORMER: BBC Scottish SO/Osmo Vänskä
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1209
How do you know that a new recording really has what it takes? For a critic the best answer is probably when he finds himself sneaking time out of his reviewing schedule to listen to it again – and again. Which is what has been happening for me with Osmo Vänskä’s Nielsen Fourth. It isn’t just that it’s powerfully conceived and compelling from first to last (and excellently recorded); the further the performance progresses, the more urgent and moving becomes that sense of what Nielsen called ‘yearning for life, for life’s essence’. It isn’t all sweeping purposefulness: there are crises, moments when Nielsen’s ‘inner drive’ rages against obstacles or is threatened with dissipation. But the sense of heroic, furious determination grows towards the finale, and is vindicated at the close as the great first movement melody re-emerges through fusillades of hostile timpani (in tune, for a change). Extra credit to Vänskä for defying tradition and refusing to slow down for that final return of the big tune (Nielsen seems to indicate the opposite): the struggle continues right through to the final bars.

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Vänskä’s account of the Third Symphony is almost as convincing. The first movement has terrific energy, and the finale benefits from Vänskä’s rugged determination. But impressive as the slow movement is, I miss the sense of awe, spaciousness and ultimate rapture in Herbert Blomstedt’s version – still my top recommendation. It’s a close-run thing, though, and Vänskä does have a particularly convincing view of the symphony as a whole statement. It’s the Fourth, though, that makes this disc a must-have. Stephen Johnson