April 02, 2015


Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (“Sinfonia espansiva”). Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1-6. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis. LSO Live. $29.99 (3 SACDs+Blu-ray Disc).

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 7. BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).

UK/DK: Music for Recorder and Harpsichord by Malcolm Arnold, Henning Christiansen, Gordon Jacob, Vagn Holmboe, Daniel Kidane, Benjamin Britten, and Axel Borup-Jorgensen. Michala Petri, recorder; Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord. OUR Recordings. $16.99 (SACD).

     The exceptional clarity and precision of most SACD recordings are especially helpful in pinpointing the details of music as carefully structured and orchestrated as that of Carl Nielsen’s symphonies. The second volume in the BIS cycle by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Sakari Oramo is a fine case in point. Here as in the first volume, which included Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, Oramo is a dedicated, committed, elegant advocate for Nielsen, shaping the music carefully while allowing its unusual structural and communicative elements to come through clearly. Thus, the oddity of Symphony No. 1 being in G minor but reaching – successfully – for a conclusion in C rather than G seems quite natural here. And the unusual tempo indication of the first movement, Allegro orgoglioso (“proud Allegro”), makes perfect sense as the music strides forward boldly and, yes, proudly from the first bar. The orchestra’s playing is fluid and natural, and the accents fall exactly where they should – the third movement is particularly impressive in this regard. In Symphony No. 3, the “Sinfonia espansiva,” Oramo does follow the Allegro espansivo indication of the first movement, but he makes sure that the expansiveness never bogs down: the forward propulsiveness is clear throughout and is very well managed. One of the few missteps in the recording comes in the second movement and is actually related to the high quality of the sound: in the vocalise section, baritone Karl-Magnus Frederiksson comes through more clearly than does soprano Anu Komsi, whose voice tends to stay too far in the background. It is possible that Oramo wants a stronger emphasis on the male voice, but more likely that the sonic precision here happens to make the baritone more prominent. The finale of this symphony is one of the most difficult movements in any Nielsen symphony to conduct successfully: it is straightforward, by intention, and can all too easily come across as drab and anticlimactic. Certainly the other three movements are more intrinsically interesting, but Oramo finds plenty that is worthwhile here as well, and his pacing prevents the music from dragging while allowing expression of the stately everyday-world viewpoint that Nielsen was here trying to bring forth. Both the interpretative quality and the fine orchestral playing make Oramo’s ongoing Nielsen cycle a first-rate one.

     The Nielsen symphonies under the late Sir Colin Davis are less idiomatic and not as immediately appealing, but they are very carefully thought out, the performances seem more convincing when heard repeatedly, and the LSO Live recording, if not as crisp as that given to Oramo, is well-balanced and clear. It is also quite a bargain, including not only three SACDs of the symphonies but also a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc containing all six – plus downloadable files that are transferable to a computer or portable device (although listening to these works in that way noticeably diminishes their effectiveness). These recordings, all made at live performances, date to 2009 (No. 5), 2010 (No. 4), and 2011 (Nos. 1-3 and 6). They represent the last word from Davis (1927-2013) on these symphonies, and a very well-considered last word it is. Compared with the Oramo version of No. 1, Davis’ is less forthright and ebullient, and the distinctiveness of Nielsen’s structure is less apparent, although the London Symphony Orchestra’s playing is very fine. No. 3 offers better balance between the vocalise soloists (baritone Marcus Farnsworth and soprano Lucy Hall), and more emotion in their performance, but otherwise the differences with Oramo are mostly slight – although Davis does pace the finale more quickly, which is not at all a bad idea. Symphony No. 2 (“The Four Temperaments”) is a bit milder and less exaggerated than it could be: the middle movements (representing the phlegmatic and melancholic personalities) are quite good, but the opening (choleric) and finale (sanguine) could have used greater intensity and even, in some sections, pomposity. The final three Nielsen symphonies receive the best performances in this cycle. No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”) comes through with strength and intensity throughout, with the final sort-of triumph sounding distinctly hard-won and by no means a sure thing; that effect seems to be exactly what Nielsen wanted. No. 5, an even stronger and stranger work, sizzles, the threatening side-drum-led march (which is bound to make modern listeners think of Shostakovich’s much later Symphony No. 7) being genuinely disturbing and the overall mood of the work being one of barely contained worry, fear and uncertainty. This lack of comfort seems, like the mood Davis brings to No. 4, to be just what Nielsen intended; it is, in any case, highly effective. Symphony No. 6 (“Sinfonia semplice”), probably the hardest of Nielsen’s symphonies to bring off effectively, is not at quite as high a level as Nos. 4 and 5, but it still works very well. The underlying problem with this symphony is the difficulty of pinning down its attitude: is it entirely sarcastic or only partially, humorous as in “funny” or as in “wry” or “black humor,” deliberately disconnected or carefully staged for maximum contrast? Davis paces the highly differentiated movements well – the four seem collectively like a suite as much as a symphony – but is a touch too restrained in the first and, even more so, the Humoreske that follows. He appears to take the third movement, Proposta seria, at face value as a serious proposition; that increases the contrast between this movement and the finale, but it also makes their juxtaposition rather awkward. The concluding theme-and-variations movement itself, though, is very well done, filled with bizarre elements that scarcely hang together, with deliberate crudity and jocularity mixing uneasily until the end – which here really does sound as if the bassoons forgot to stop playing when everyone else did so. Davis does not have the panache that Oramo does in interpreting Nielsen’s symphonies, but his cycle is very cogent, thoughtfully conceived and quite well-played.

     Cogency and thoughtfulness are also the hallmarks of the start of a new Sibelius cycle featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård. The first Linn Records disc in this series offers an outstanding Symphony No. 2 and a less-special but nevertheless very well-done Symphony No. 7. In the Second, Søndergård’s pacing sounds inevitable: each movement proceeds at what seems to be just the right tempo or set of tempos, with the result that the work ebbs and flows stylishly and with a sense of constant unfolding. Søndergård is particularly strong in the second movement, using rubato (which is called for in the tempo indication) judiciously and carefully to build the effectiveness of the music; the result is that the third movement, Vivacissimo, produces an even more-intense contrast than usual, propelling the musical argument along strongly and helping make the finale a true capstone. The orchestra’s playing is warm, sensitive and knowing here, and the strength of the overall interpretation is aided significantly by the musicians’ clear sensitivity to Sibelius’ penchant for abrupt changes that, cumulatively, are highly effective in producing a mood of triumphal strength and a kind of defiance. The Seventh comes across almost as well. Originally seen by the composer as a fantasia, this single-movement symphony works best when it breaks down into individual sections while at the same time sounding cohesive throughout. Søndergård’s interpretation is a touch on the disconnected side: he highlights the changes in tempo and mood very effectively, but at the expense of an overall feeling of cohesion – a feeling, ironically, that he attains in the Second despite the distinct differences within and among that work’s four movements. The orchestra’s playing in the Seventh is, however, just as fine as in the Second, and Søndergård’s approach shows the ways in which Sibelius made individual portions of the Seventh stand out from others, not only through obvious tempo differences but also with subtle changes in rhythm, orchestration and emphasis. The very fine recorded sound of the disc enhances the performances throughout and indicates that Søndergård’s entire Sibelius cycle stands fair to be an excellent one.

     The clarity and folk-music orientation that both Nielsen of Denmark and Sibelius of Finland brought to their symphonies, albeit in very different ways, are less in evidence on an interesting, if in some ways rather odd, OUR Recordings disc that mixes British and Danish works under the title UK/DK. Really, the primary purpose of this recording is simply to showcase the unusual combination of recorder and harpsichord in music of the 20th and 21st centuries – most of it specifically and intriguingly written for these instruments, some of it arranged for them. The British composers are Malcolm Arnold, Gordon Jacob (represented by two works), Daniel Kidane and Benjamin Britten. Arnold’s Sonatina, Op. 41 of 1962 was written for recorder and piano, and considering how often harpsichord music is transcribed for piano, doing things the other way is especially attractive. The music is attractive, too: tuneful, witty, pleasant and all too short (the three movements last barely seven minutes). Jacobs’ Sonatina for recorder and harpsichord (written in 1983, the year before Jacobs died at 89, but showing no sign of flagging compositional ability) and An Encore for Michala (also 1983, requiring the performer both to play and to sing) are both very well-made and neatly structured for the recorder, and Michala Petri – for whom the “encore” was written, as were all the works on this disc except Arnold’s and Britten’s – handles both with consummate skill and the absolutely top-quality partnership of Mahan Esfahani. Daniel Kidane (born 1986) is represented by the most recent work on the disc, Tourbillon (2014), which has some interesting moments and intriguingly treats the two instruments as equals almost throughout – but which gives the impression of pulling all the usual contemporary tricks without really using them to communicate a great deal, and which goes on much too long: it says less in 11 minutes than the Jacobs sonatina’s four movements say in fewer than 10. As for Britten’s delightful little six-movement Alpine Suite (1965), it was written for recorder trio (two descants and treble) and, in this arrangement by Petri and Esfahani, offers a fascinating window into a little-known area of Britten’s interest: he was president of the British Society of Recorder Players from 1958 to 1976. The five works by four British composers are intermingled on the recording with three pieces by Danes; the concept of the disc, which is weaker than most of the music on it, is that Petri is Danish and Esfahan lives in England (he was born in Iran). Henning Christiansen’s It Is Spring (1970) is a pleasant little two-movement offering, easier to listen to than much of the music of the Fluxus movement, in which he was an important figure. Vagn Holmboe’s three-movement Sonata, Op. 145 (1980), written for recorder and harpsichord, is neatly juxtaposed with Jacobs’ sonatina and contrasts fascinatingly with it: here are two works of nearly equal length using the same two instruments in very different communicative roles. And the 1988 Fantasia by Axel Borup-Jorgensen, also written for this instrumental combination, contrasts in a different way: it lasts longer than either the Jacobs or Holmboe work, treats its material more freely, and allows the recorder a level of expressiveness that belies its frequent Baroque association and its comparatively simple construction. However, like Kidane’s piece, it is gesture-filled and often seems to be going through the overdone motions of modernity. The attraction of this recording lies in the chance to hear an unusual instrumental combination featuring two outstanding performers. Not all the music is equally compelling, but the way everything is handled certainly is, and listeners in search of material outside the mainstream but still very attractively composed and beautifully presented will find UK/DK a real treat.

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