Nielsen: Symphony No. 2 (The Four Temperaments); Symphony No. 5

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WORKS: Symphony No. 2 (The Four Temperaments); Symphony No. 5
PERFORMER: BBC Scottish SO/Osmo Vänskä
‘Anger’ is the first of Nielsen’s symphonic Four Temperaments; but listening to this remarkable disc you might conclude that it was a recurring presence throughout Nielsen’s music. There is exhilaration, warmth and a kind of optimism through gritted teeth in the closing pages of the Fifth Symphony, but they only just counterbalance the violence, desperation and general unease. The ‘Melancholic’slow movement of No. 2 is as dark as I can remember, and there are even premonitory hints of it in the preceding ‘Phlegmatic’ movement – to say nothing of the unsettling reminder just before the end of the ‘Sanguine’ finale. But it’s the Fifth that makes the more powerful impression – as it should. Listening to Vänskä’s performance one is continually reminded that it was written in the aftermath of the First World War. It’s as though Nielsen were asking how one could continue to be positive in the face of such revelations of ‘senseless hate’. The result is a performance that grips as a musical structure, an emotional journey and a philosophical statement. The first movement’s anarchic side-drum cadenza is as chilling as it should be, but there’s a moving inevitability about the way it yields to the desolate clarinet solo – then leading to the finale’s determined resurgence. Hypercritical Nielsen fans may quibble about the odd tiny detail here or there (and Vänskä’s use of the new Nielsen Edition score brings a few small surprises), but there is simply no other version of No. 5 on disc that’s as convincing and compelling as a whole statement.


And No. 2 can hold its own even against the excellent Blomstedt recording on Decca – superbly recorded, and with more sensuous charm, but perhaps a little too cosy in comparison. There’s nothing comfortable about this Nielsen. Stephen Johnson