March 13, 2014
(++++) SYMPHONIC SPLENDOR
Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”) and 5. Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. LPO. $16.99.
Carl Nielsen gets some respect as a symphonist, but on the basis of the excellent BIS recording of his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, not nearly enough. Oramo’s handling of this music is simply superb, from an opening of No. 4 that will make listeners sit up and take notice, if not fall out of their seats, through the altogether softer and more emotionally compelling middle movements, to a finale that starts with amazingly fast but perfectly controlled strings and ends with an upbeat positivity that is tremendously exciting. The four movements of this symphony are played without pause, and Oramo takes full advantage of that structure to turn the music into a single grand sweep of emotion, pulling the audience back and forth among a myriad of interconnected feelings, faithfully accepting Nielsen’s assertion that this symphony was designed to express the things in humanity and music itself that are ultimately inextinguishable – a tremendously difficult and highly admirable goal for a work written smack in the middle of World War I (the symphony dates to 1914-16). And then Oramo delivers every bit as monumental and compelling a performance of the Fifth (1921-22), a frequently bizarre two-movement work whose opening looks ahead to the first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh but whose use of the side drum (brilliantly played by Daniel Kåse) is even stronger and stranger than the Russian’s of two decades later. The Fifth is one of only two Nielsen symphonies without a subtitle (the First is the other), and indeed it is hard to encapsulate this work’s intentions and meaning in a few words. It is in some respects a continuation of the struggle of the Fourth, in others a deeper consideration of the cacophonous postwar world and the eternal battle between the forces of dark and those of light. It is a far larger work than its 34-minute running time would indicate, being in some respects as world-encapsulating as Mahler’s twice-as-long symphonies and in others as compressed as the symphonies of Sibelius. Oramo has a clear vision for the complexity and emotional difficulty of this symphony, and the orchestra communicates it highly effectively, abetted by outstanding sound that not only allows the crashing climaxes to have their full effect but also puts the many quiet passages of both symphonies in just the right perspective. This is the first release in a planned Nielsen cycle by Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and it cannot but whet listeners’ appetites for the upcoming ones.
The more-familiar symphonies of Brahms are grand and expansive where those of Nielsen are grand and compressed, and first-rate interpretations of them abound, while top-notch ones of Nielsen are decidedly rarer. The cycle by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, consisting entirely of live recordings from 2010 and 2011, has a number of significant high points, coupled with some low ones that are rather surprising in performances by this usually thoughtful conductor. The pluses and minuses are abundantly clear in Jurowski’s reading of the First and Second. The latter is excellent, in line with what listeners familiar with Jurowski’s conducting will likely expect. The rhapsodic lyricism of this symphony is everywhere apparent despite the rather quick tempos, the orchestra plays beautifully, and the interpretation is filled with small, felicitous touches that the fine recording brings out very well. For example, the diminuendo at the end of the third movement and the full-throated display of orchestral brilliance after the hushed opening of the finale are both performed and captured beautifully. But the First, somewhat surprisingly in view of Jurowski’s penchant for dramatic music, is disappointing. Here too the tempos are quick, but in this case they feel rushed, and here the details work against the music instead of with it. Most notably, the opening of the first movement is sped up so it nearly matches the Allegro that follows it, essentially making the movement seem to be at a single tempo when it is really at two (and requiring some very fast timpani playing at the start of the symphony). The whole movement has a breathless quality that certainly results in (and from) a rethinking of Brahms, but does not work to the music’s benefit – the whole thing seems somewhat lightweight. Also, the orchestra itself sounds less full here than in the recording of the Second (which was made four months later) – and the sound is thin, too, adding to an overall impression of insubstantiality that is at odds with the music and, if meant to be a new way to look at and hear Brahms, is an unconvincing one. Brahms is often made, unfortunately, to sound heavy and ponderous, but having his music come across as lightweight is no improvement.
The recording of the Third and Fourth is more consistent and more successful. The woodwinds are particular standouts on this CD, and here Jurowski and the sonic engineers achieve a balance between a thinner, more-transparent sound and a full display of the well-balanced sections of the orchestra. Most tempos here are somewhat more relaxed than in the First and Second, and the prominent use of string portamento – while it may not be to all listeners’ taste – gives the symphonies a pleasantly old-fashioned sound. The best thing about these performances is Jurowski’s emphasis on the long lines of the music – the Third almost seems like a continuous movement from start to finish, and the finale of the Fourth, which can seem episodic as it progresses through its 30 variations, here has sweep and vitality combined in an attractive package that crowns the symphony as well as the entire set of four. There is a freshness to these performances that goes beyond the notion of a simple attempt to do something different – that attempt appears to be what misfires in the First. This is not to say that the readings are flawless. To attain the continuity of the Third, for example, Jurowski takes the second movement rather quickly, certainly not as the Andante that Brahms calls for, and because this comes on the heels of a rather speedy first movement, the approach takes some getting used to. And although the symphony’s finale is well-paced and well-played, its mysterious opening gets short shrift here. In the Fourth, the first movement has plenty of ebb and flow, but is somewhat lacking in depth of feeling, and the third movement is taken at so headlong a pace that listeners will likely respond to it with surprise – although it must be said that Jurowski balances the sound well and provides, overall, a genuinely thrilling effect along the lines that one hears more often in a Tchaikovsky scherzo than in Brahms. Jurowski takes lots of chances in all these well-worn pieces, providing a considerable number of insights despite drifting astray from time to time, most notably in the First. The quick pacing and comparatively transparent orchestral sound mark these interpretations as “rethinkings” of Brahms, and certainly these symphonies can stand some of that. However, there is such a thing as over-thinking, or over-rethinking, and Jurowski is guilty of some of it: Brahms is a composer of considerable depth, and even in the best elements of this Brahms cycle, depth tends to be missing. There is a superficiality here that does not go particularly well with the music – but there is, at the same time, a salutary willingness to see the works in a different way and to try out an approach to them that, if not always successful, is filled with intriguing touches.