Thursday 20 March 2014

Performances to be reckoned with of Nielsen’s fourth and fifth symphonies from Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra on a new release from BIS

Between 1998 and 2008, Sakari Oramo was Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As this is my local band I was privileged to hear many fine concerts under this maestro, not least of which were his terrific performances of Sibelius.

From the beginning of the 2013/14 season he took over as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but it is with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra  of which he is Chief Conductor, that he has recorded Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies for BIS Records

BIS - 2028
Nielsen’s symphonies have not always been lucky on CD with the result that Herbert Blomstedt’s cycle with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra still, twenty five years on, remains a top recommendation. There is room, therefore, for a newcomer to rival these now classic recordings.

Sakari Oramo has the full measure of the energy of the opening Allegro of Symphony No. 4 ‘The Inextinguishable’ Op.29 (1914-16), firmly taut and controlled, with lovely phrasing. As the music slows, Oramo seeks out those strange features that are so Nielsenian, those that appear in abundance in the sixth symphony. There is still a terrific breadth of sound, but how Oramo relishes the odd little quieter moments. Just listen to the pizzicato strings over the strange orchestral outbursts. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Oramo is terrific bringing out all the harmonies, colours and textures.

Oramo leads the music perfectly into the Poco Allegretto with such hushed playing from the RSPO, particularly the woodwind when they appear. Oramo excels again in the odd rhythmic quality of the music.

After Oramo’s carefully paced allegretto, the Poco adagio quasi andante has just the right amount of contrast. As the strings open there is a real feel of passion, even tragedy. There is a profound moment when a little string ensemble plays followed by the quiet orchestra. When the peace is suddenly disturbed by the wind ensemble there seems to be a conversation with the pizzicato strings. Oramo builds the tension wonderfully as the orchestra comes together.

The Allegro arrives as an affirmation, with Oramo allowing more of a forward sweep, showing clearly why he held back somewhat, earlier. The problems aren’t yet over with all of Nielsen’s disruptive elements trying to break up this triumph. Oramo and the RSPO allow all the interruptions to erupt without losing the tremendous forward momentum. He controls beautifully the gentle, slower middle section, so much so that when the timpani enter to do battle, the effect is spectacular, leading to a beautifully sonorous triumphant coda.

This is a great Inextinguishable revealing so much that seems new and tending to put the work into the context of Nielsen’s wider output.

In the opening of the Tempo giusto – Adagio of Symphony No.5, Op.50 (1921-22) Oramo draws particularly fine playing from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, such finesse, yet there is still a feeling of an undercurrent of tension. There is a steady, subtly inexorable feel when the side drum enters. Oramo’s handling of the moment when the music subsides is superb, with quiet, subtle swirls of woodwind. Later on there is a lovely relaxed string led section that flows and rises up as though a kind of affirmation.  Oramo shows how he has got the tempo just right with a complete understanding of the entire architecture of this movement. Subtly, the woodwind provide a disturbance insistently above the strings, becoming more agitated before the side drum enters. This ad lib side drum is terrifically done, trying to overturn order without respite but it is the orchestra that eventually overwhelms the side drum. As the music fades the side drum tries to have a final say but it is a lone clarinet that plaintively ends the movement.

The second and final movement, Allegro – Presto – Andante un poco tranquillo – Allegro, is soon full of doubts and troubles with these forces pulling together all the conflicting elements. Soon there is a strange, quiet little section with staccato woodwind and strings followed by a dancing theme that becomes rather manic with the RSPO’s terrific woodwind running around the rhythmic theme. The RSPO are tremendous in this complex cross section of orchestral lines.

Eventually a hushed string section calmly flows to which Oramo brings a feeling of angst, keeping an unsettled feeling throughout. Soon the passionate strings, full of intensity, pick up seemingly with more confidence and forward flow, recalling the confidence of the opening. The disruptive forces lurk behind the flowing theme and try to assert themselves with support from the timpani, all drawn so finely by Oramo and his players, before horns and full orchestra lead to the triumphant coda.

These are Nielsen performances to be reckoned with, bringing out subtleties that show the depth of Nielsen’s creations. Whilst Blomstedt’s fine recordings for Decca are still special, these new performances, with all their insights rank alongside the best.

The BIS engineers have given Oramo a first class recording and there are excellent booklet notes from David Fanning. I look forward to more Nielsen from Sakari Oramo and his fine orchestra.

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