Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 (SACD review)

Sakari Oramo, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. BIS BIS-2028.

You can always expect a solid performance from conductor Sakari Oramo, particularly when he's conducting his own orchestra, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. The question is whether Oramo's recording of Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies is any better than a number of rivals who have already proved their worth, conductors like Blomstedt, Bernstein, Ormandy, Berglund, Horenstein, Jarvi, and others. The answer is a definitive, Who knows? Oramo's readings certainly appear competent, although I can't say they are as exciting, as sensitive, or as thoughtful as the ones from the competition.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) was one of Denmark's most-prolific and distinguished composers, writing six symphonies, two operas, three concertos, and a ton of songs, hymns, cantatas, and orchestral, chamber, and keyboard music. He wrote his Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, in 1916 with the First World War raging in Europe, so you can expect it to be one of his more-dramatic works. He gave it the title "The Inextinguishable," a name he said referred to "that which is inextinguishable" or "the elemental will to live." Nielsen went on to say in a preface to his symphony that the piece expressed "the Elemental Will of Life." A few years later, he wrote, "If the whole world was destroyed, Nature would once again begin to beget new life and push forward with the strong and fine forces that are to be found in the very stuff of existence.... These 'Inextinguishable' forces are what I have tried to represent."

Nielsen opens the symphony with a rather fiery, agitated Allegro, which Maestro Oramo handles well enough. It doesn't quite develop the kind of intensity I'd like, but the conductor does play up the differences in tempo nicely as the music swells, ebbs, and flows. Still, a little more tumult might have helped to establish the context of the conflicts.

The second movement Poco Allegretto, which flows uninterrupted from the first movement, is a kind of tribute to peaceful, bucolic simplicity, the sort of quiet and tranquility Nature ultimately seeks. Here, Oramo well captures the mood and paints an appropriately sweet picture in leisurely style.

The third and fourth movements return us to high drama, and it's here that I think I prefer Herbert Blomstedt (Decca) over Oramo. In the present performance, Oramo isn't quite as intense as Blomstedt, even though Oramo seems to move along at a slightly faster clip. I don't hear quite the emotional charge from Oramo that the music needs; instead, it appears more matter-of-fact, which isn't bad, mind you, just not as involving.

Sakari Oramo
That said, Oramo nonetheless concludes the symphony on a properly victorious note, with a glorious drum battle at its climax. Nature does, indeed, triumph in the end; the Earth abides. And Oramo has his day.

Nielsen premiered his next symphony, No. 5, Op. 50, in 1922, and despite a rocky start with the public, it became one of his most popular compositions. Because he wrote it just after the close of the Great War, he included in it elements of contrast, good and evil, war and peace. Like No. 4, the symphony is obviously dramatic.

Nielsen marked his Fifth Symphony in two movements and six segment notations: Tempo giusto, Adagio non troppo, Allegro, Presto, Andante un poco tranquillo, and Allegro, perhaps another indication of the somewhat enigmatic nature of the work. While the Fifth Symphony is obviously a direct outgrowth of the Fourth, the Fifth Symphony is also a force unto itself.

Anyway, Oramo expresses the tone of the music as well as most anybody. It's a more atmospheric piece than Nielsen's previous symphony in that it conveys more differing states of mind, sometimes moving from one state to another in surprisingly jarring ways. Oramo maintains these transitions clearly yet smoothly, never allowing the music to sound merely like a series of starts and stops. Again, Oramo ensures that despite the music's rises and falls of energy, all ends in optimistic, life-affirming joy, the orchestra playing beautifully for him throughout.

Producer Jens Braun and engineers Matthias Spitzbarth and Thore Brinkmann recorded the music at Stockholm Concert Hall, Stockholm, Sweden in August 2012 and June 2013 for hybrid CD and SACD playback. As usual with BIS, we get a fairly detailed, highly dynamic, and reasonably ambient sound, at least from the two-channel SACD layer to which I listened. It's a mite closer than I expected, though, slightly thinner, and a bit less dimensional in terms of depth. Nevertheless, these are minor concerns when the midrange transparency is so good and the overall impact so pronounced. Bass and treble extremes are adequate for the occasion, and the timpani sound splendid.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa