Of Carl Nielsen’s six Symphonies the two paired here are the best known and most often played, which doesn’t mean that the ambiguous Sixth (the remarkable ‘Sinfonia semplice’) isn’t the greatest of them all. Of course the Fourth and Fifth are extraordinary too, and could only have come from Nielsen’s pen. Sakari Oramo is one of this composer’s most celebrated conductors, immersed into the music and not just for this year the 150th-anniversary of the composer's birth, whether in Stockholm or in London (writing this review in March 2015, he has two more Nielsen concerts to go with the BBC Symphony Orchestra). In Stockholm, the Symphonies are being recorded, superbly, and in every sense.
When the music and the music-making are as good as this, there is little to say, except to issue a handsome recommendation. Suffice then that the mighty ‘Inextinguishable’ Symphony (1914-16, these composition dates tell all) is unleashed with powerful thrust, until unease and tension-filled/strange eddies of current appear; it’s a disquieting experience (and should be), but this is also music the exudes a huge life-force – Oramo is so completely identified with the Symphony’s beguiling escapes, raging intensities and deep eloquences that one rarely has a doubt, and the battle of the two timpanists in the finale is thrilling, leading to something indomitable.
The Fifth Symphony (1922) presents another crisis and conquest. However pastoral the opening maybe, anxiety is in the air, a haunted landscape is painted, and those distant percussion figures come to the fore with militaristic might. This is not the ‘Inextinguishable’ rewritten – Nielsen did nothing twice – but an alarming work that, for all the humanity and consolation that surfaces within the first movement, there is much acerbity (vituperous woodwinds, for example) and, when the side-drum returns, even more vehement (after a while the player is left to his own devices), there is the significance of progress/growth being halted. After the uneasy calm of the conclusion, the second movement is assertive – renewed – if vacillating, but by means of fugal exorcism (antiphonal violins vital at such moments) the work ends in glorious optimism.
For the reasons stated above, this release with this coupling, is an absolute winner.