Nielsen: Symphony No. 1, Symphony No. 6 (Sinfonia semplice)

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COMPOSERS: Nielsen
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Symphony No. 1, Symphony No. 6 (Sinfonia semplice)
PERFORMER: BBC Scottish SO/Osmo Vänskä
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1079
With his invigorating, revelatory Sibelius cycle behind him, Osmo Vänskä turns now to that other great Nordic composer, Carl Nielsen, and tackles his series of six symphonies for BIS, this time with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He loses no time getting into his stride with a muscular yet lyrical first movement to No. 1, aptly characterising its unusual marking Allegro orgoglioso’ (the latter word means ‘proudly’). The second movement, too, begins with ravishing intimacy but builds to a powerful climax.

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The Sixth Symphony (whose title Sinfonia semplice should not be taken too seriously) may begin in sunny mood but the shadows soon lengthen with metrical disruptions that upset the equanimity and herald dark times ahead. Vänskä engineers the transition skillfully, but is matched by Gennady Rozhdestvensky on Chandos, who has perhaps more to offer in the work’s latter stages: the Adagio is more elegiac and the leering phantasmagoric shapes of the finale more sharply drawn.

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There are also estimable versions of the Nielsen cycle from Blomstedt on Decca and Neeme Järvi on DG. But perhaps the greatest competition comes from the composer’s own native country. The Dacapo cycle under Michael Schønwandt is very fine indeed and the last installment (coupling Nos 1 and 6) was described on these pages by David Nice as including ‘the most powerful and convincing account of the Sixth to have appeared in recent years’. The biggest test for Vänskä will come with the mighty Fifth and other better-known symphonies. Barry Millington