NIELSEN Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
If that really is restraint I’m hearing inside these performances of Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies from Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, I’m surprisingly unconcerned. Nielsen’s harmonic bump-and-grind remains well served, and Oramo’s pathway through these incendiary works is valiant and thoughtful – even if he point-blank refuses to emerge from the skirmish with a bloodied nose.
Alan Gilbert’s new Nielsen cycle on Dacapo is where to go if you want fresh blood (although someone less generous than myself might say that the blood spilt there is of the choreographed, Sam Peckinpah variety); but, with a profusion of recent and continuing Nielsen cycles and one-off symphony performances (from Gilbert, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Colin Davis, Gustavo Dudamel et al), who could blame Oramo for wanting to carve out terrain to call his own? Or is that letting him off the interpretative hook?
Only an act of wanton destruction, or basic incompetency, could torpedo the fighting mettle of these symphonies and that spirit shines through Oramo’s more urbane performances unscathed. Compared with Gilbert and the NYPO’s raw-boned gallop through the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, Oramo indulges in moments of Alice-like repose and magic realism as the usually menacing snare drum (played by Daniel Kåse) instead teases like a Harlequin’s carnival. Check out 9'15", where the snare drum (and tambourine) dances against deadpan repeated string notes – a passage that Oramo projects forwards to anticipate the unhappy humour of Nielsen’s Sixth.
Unlike Bernstein and Schønwandt, where the improvised snare drum cadenza actively aims to disrupt the performance (albeit within accepted boundaries), here the snare drum works with the orchestra, rolling the infernal machine forwards. And the second-movement fugue also works against our expectations. Saraste’s performance is a full-on danse macabre; here it diplomatically jangles the nerves.
Timpani tritones rock the beginning of Saraste’s Fourth with harmonic instability, while Oramo sounds entrenched and stately. When subsequently the tritones ‘right’ themselves into perfect intervals, Oramo’s view snaps neatly into place like a Billy Bookcase and it’s difficult not to admire, even if you can’t unconditionally love, music-making of such clear-headed purpose and intelligence. True enough, the timpani duel in the last movement sounds more like a moderately ill-tempered tiff than a full scale assault; but no one could accuse Oramo of inconsistency.