NIELSEN: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 – Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orch./ Sakari Oramo – Bis

NIELSEN: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 – Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orch./ Sakari Oramo – Bis multichannel SACD 2028, 69:46 [2/25/14] (Distr. by Naxos) performance **** sound ***:

Carl Nielsen, and his contemporary Jean Sibelius took very different musical paths. Born in the same year, Sibelius was influenced by Borodin and Tchaikovsky, while Nielsen was more in the tradition of Berlioz and Grieg.

This new disc from Bis, gives us Nielsen’s 4th Symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” and the 5th Symphony. For the 4th, Nielsen abandoned a standard program and sought to musically illustrate what he called “the elemental will of life”. He wrote a friend that he wanted to portray a world wiped clean, where life begins anew.

The 4th is a tumultuous symphony at the outset, and evolves over the remaining three movements, ending in a breathtaking allegro that signals a triumphant spirit.

The 5th Symphony does not have a subtitle, and we are left to guess Nielsen’s underlying theme. It’s a two-movement symphony, the only one Nielsen composed in that form. He once joked that most composers are out of ideas by the 3rd and 4th movements anyway.

The 5th is full of ideas and Nielsen in later editions shifted some of the orchestral forces around. The first movement starts solemnly, and builds to an extended conversation between the orchestra and snare drum. It’s a unique and interesting listen. The second movement is filled with anxiety, and ends explosively with the full forces of the orchestra.

The performance by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic is precise and energetic. Conductor Sakari Oramo has a passion for these symphonies, and we hear Nielsen the modernist coming through.

In terms of the recording, I find it a bit dry. The violins and other strings are smooth in their highest registers, but the lower bass frequencies seem a bit reduced.  That’s probably the acoustics of the Stockholm Concert hall, and perhaps some decisions made by the producer. A warmer, more full bodied recording would, in my opinion, have made this set definitive. The surrounds are only lightly engaged, and in quieter passages the back channels were barely perceptible.

Still, these are fine performances of some important works by Nielsen. I find the 5th particularly interesting for its bold musical ideas.

—Mel Martin

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