Storgårds’ sturdy Nielsen cycle with the BBC Philharmonic

Nielsen: Symphonies 1-6 (Chandos CHAN 10859(3))

nielsen-storgards-chandosOne of the major disappointments in this season’s BBC  Proms schedule is the absence of a Nielsen symphony cycle in this, the composer’s 150th anniversary year. However, the Beeb has done the great Dane proud elsewhere this year, with cycles from the BBCSO conducted by Sakari Oramo in London and the BBC Philharmonic under John Storgårds in Manchester. Storgårds has a fine reputation in Scandinavian repertoire, not least a recent set of Sibelius symphonies recorded for Chandos, so a new Nielsen cycle on disc is most welcome.

Storgårds is less impetuous than some, his sturdy, rugged readings perhaps more in line with those of Paavo Berglund than the more dynamic Oramo. Nevertheless, the BBC Philharmonic plays out of its skin for Storgårds and the sumptuous Chandos sound is fully in evidence. The romanticism of the First is played down in favour of a more down-to-earth, classical approach. One is immediately aware of the recording quality which allows you to hear inside Nielsen’s busy string writing. The BBC Phil brass makes an imposing presence (firm, no nonsense), while woodwind solos are clear without being unduly spotlit. The Andante slow movement unfolds with a natural easy pace, lavished with warm strings. That natural, organic feel is felt even more in the third movement, its ebb and flow deftly measured, before a more deliberate pace is set in the finale.

That deliberate feel slightly mars the opening movement of the Symphony No.2 ‘The Four Temperaments’ where more impetuosity is called for in the opening Allegro collerico, although the trombones are majestic and the timpani make a great impact. The performance works better in the lazy, relaxed ‘Phlegmatic’ and ‘Melancholic’ inner movements, although the finale bustles along with vim and vigour.

Like the Second, the Sinfonia espansiva opens with a lack of punch, although Nielsen’s wonderful trumpet theme halfway through the movement goes with an irresistible swing. That sense of laying on your back and staring up at the sky is evoked in the second movement, Nielsen at his pastoral best. Gillian Keith and Mark Stone are nicely nestled among the orchestra for their lyrical, wordless contributions. ‘A hymn to work and the healthy enjoyment of daily life’ was the description the composer gave to the finale, and Storgårds and the BBC Phil embrace it with hearty, life-enhancing warmth.

The Fourth Symphony, The Inextinguishable, receives a fine performance, taut and brusque, with plenty of attack. Burbling woodwinds add charm to the pastoral second movement, while the two timpanists duel explosively in the finale from opposite speakers. The performance of the Fifth is a real winner. The eerie oscillations at the start set the tone perfectly, the side drum’s spirited efforts to disrupt the first movement balanced well by the Chandos engineers (fabulous clarinet contributions here too). The Sixth, Sinfonia semplice, is an enigmatic work, sometimes unsettling, at others whimsical – a foretaste of Shostakovich’s 15th. Storgårds finds the right balance in a dark, often ferocious performance.

Nielsen stated: “I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it.” Storgårds and the BBC Phil have certainly done Nielsen proud, breaking those silences with serious intent. Excellent booklet notes by David Fanning makes Chandos’ slimline box set a must for this anniversary year.

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