Saturday, 6 June 2015

Sakari Oramo brings superb performances of Nielsen’s Symphonies No. 2 and 6 for BIS, concluding what is surely the finest cycle of Nielsen symphonies yet recorded

BIS Records have just released the final disc in Sakari Oramo’s  cycle of Carl Nielsen’s (1865-1931)  symphonies with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra


BIS issued Oramo’s recordings of Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies in March last year and they proved to be performances to be reckoned with, bringing out subtleties that show the depth of Nielsen’s creations. The First and Third symphonies followed in February this year and brought a terrific assurance with Oramo finding so many fine details and, indeed, a sense of re-discovery.

This last release in the series couples the Second Symphony with the Sixth Symphony, a work variously described as complex, puzzling and provocative.

Some years before writing his Symphony No. 2 ‘The Four Temperaments’, Op.16/FS29 (1901-02), Nielsen had been at a country inn on the Danish island of Zealand where he saw a rather naïve set of woodcuts depicting the Four Temperaments, the moods determined by the mixture of fluids in the body that the Ancient Greeks and Romans and, indeed, later physicians believed needed to be kept in balance. 

Nielsen took the moods for each of the movements of his symphony namely the impetuous (Allegro collerico), the indolent (Allegro comodo e flemmatico), the melancholy (Andante malincolico) and the cheerful or naïve (Allegro sanguinio). Nielsen pointed out, however, that the impetuous man can have his milder moments, the melancholy man his impetuous or brighter ones and the boisterous, cheerful man can become a little contemplative. The indolent man, however, can only emerge from his phlegmatic state with the greatest of difficulty.

Carl Nielsen dedicated his Second Symphony to Ferruccio Busoni and it was first performed on the 1st December 1902. Oramo brings a terrific drive and energy to the opening of the Allegro collerico drawing a terrific tautness from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. There is a terrific control of dynamics, with the most beautifully done quieter, flowing passages as well as some fine sweeps of orchestral sound and razor sharp instrumental interventions. Oramo will pull you along with him like no other.

The first rate recording reveals some exquisite textures as the Allegro comodo e flemmatico gently, yet buoyantly, flows forward. There is a lovely rhythmic gait to the music as well as some very fine woodwind passages. This is a beautifully poised and mellifluous movement in Oramo’s hands, right up to the lovely coda.

The Andante malincolico is beautifully paced, with Oramo drawing some very fine string textures as the music slowly moves forward. There are more lovely woodwind moments, especially from the oboe, cor anglais and bassoon as well as some fine details such as the lovely gentle, insistent string motif before rising to a climax, so natural, full of restrained power.  Part way through, there is a beautifully hushed moment before the orchestra rises with brass in a glorious passage. Oramo does this to perfection, pacing it just right. When the music rises again it is a tremendous moment before slowly falling to a gentle coda.

The Allegro sanguinio leaps out, full of life with a terrific rhythmic surge of energy. Again the precision from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic is superb with some terrific little instrumental details.  Later there is a beautifully drawn, quietly flowing section, beautifully phrased before leading off to a confident coda.

This is a spectacularly fine performance, beautifully recorded. 

Nielsen’s Symphony No.6 ‘Sinfonia Semplice’ FS116 (1924-25) is the most difficult to bring off. After his Fifth Symphony Nielsen stated that next time he would select an easy style to amuse himself. In August 1924 he wrote to his daughter Anne Marie Telmányi to tell her that he was beginning a Sixth Symphony that would be of ‘completely idyllic character.’ He even gave it the subtitle Sinfonia Semplice.

The new symphony was completed in 1925 and given its first performance on 11th December that year. It is dedicated to the Royal Chapel Orchestra, Copenhagen. In speaking of the completed symphony, Nielsen said that in the new work he had sought to compose for the individual characters of the instruments, that to him ‘each instrument is like a person who sleeps, whom I have to wake to life.’

A bell signals the opening of Tempo giusto before the orchestra enters with a sprightly rhythmic theme. The fine precision of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic really comes into its own as individual instruments dart in and out of the texture. Oramo controls every little detail and nuance superbly, somehow revealing the familiar Nielsen of the earlier works. There are some fine flowing passages for woodwind as well as frenetic strings that are absolutely terrific. There are some finely controlled quiet moments before the music builds to a climax, Oramo and the orchestra really whipping up a storm before the gentle coda.

Tinkling bells and little woodwind motifs appear in the strange Humoresque Allegretto. Here Oramo’s ability to pull together all the disparate ideas brings a cohesion and sense to this movement that I’ve never quite heard before. There is spot on precision and wonderfully wild instrumental sounds before a very fine coda as the music falls away.

The strings of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic sound out passionately in the opening of Proposta seria Adagio. There are beautifully controlled quieter woodwind passages that bring a haunting anxiety before a quiet coda.

In the Theme and variations Allegro the woodwind rise suddenly before a bassoon slowly takes the theme forward. Oramo controls the oddly quixotic passages beautifully, through moments of hushed quicksilver playing to intensely driving strings. There is a waltz that leads to a riotous section where the waltz is interrupted, bringing to mind the Fifth Symphony.  There are deeper passages such as the fine string melody, part way through, full of intense feeling. Then a riotous percussion and brass passage and fanfare before frenetic strings drive forward before arriving at the lovely coda that ends on a bassoon note.

Oramo seems to understand the structure and layout of No.6 as no other. This is surely the performance of this symphony that we have all been waiting for.

To say that Sakari Oramo really has the measure of Nielsen is an understatement. These performances are superb, topping off what is surely the finest cycle yet recorded. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra are absolutely top form and they receive another very fine BIS recording that highlights all the textures that Oramo extracts form the orchestra.

There are excellent booklet notes from David Fanning.

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