Nielsen: Symphonies Nos 2 & 4

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Nielsen
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 2 & 4
PERFORMER: Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
CATALOGUE NO: BIS-2128 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Not only is Sakari Oramo utterly at home and in control in these two brilliant, at times startlingly variegated works, he draws them closer together than I would have previously thought possible. Each of the ‘Four Temperaments’ depicted in the Second Symphony comes alive with thrilling or beguiling conviction, but the majestic symphonic cohesion (not obvious in every performance) means one can hear the whole work as a single statement. It’s as though Nielsen is saying, ‘All these emotional states are me’. It makes one marvel all the more at the way he is able to draw such potentially warring characteristics into one radically inclusive portrait.

That cohesion is stretched to near-breaking point in the Sixth Symphony, yet the centre does hold, even in the finale’s wild collage – somewhere between Ives and manic Shostakovich. And under Oramo’s direction there are moments when the two symphonies seem to reach across to each other. The noble, unutterably sad Molto adagio variation in the Sixth’s finale is the Second Symphony’s ‘melancholic’ temperament revisited, though perhaps now with the knowledge that inner darkness can never really be vanquished. The hushed wind calls towards the end of the Sixth’s ‘Proposta seria’ look back tenderly to the ‘phlegmatic’ second movement of Symphony No 2. There was a time, Nielsen seems to say, when such careless contentment was possible. Now though the bewildering freak-show of experience must be faced in its entirety.

The playing of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic is excellent: its tone beautiful, powerful, delicate where required, with an emotional conviction that suits the character of the music at every stage. And the whole thing is superbly recorded. If you’ve the least interest in Nielsen, make space for this in your collection.

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Stephen Johnson