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Nielsen Symphonies
BBC Scottish SO/Osmo Vänskä

BIS CD1839-40

Even though this is a crowded and competitive field, it is good to have another digital boxed set in the Nielsen symphonies discography, and with several other mature works included. This is a satisfying version of his orchestral oeuvre, recorded in Glasgow at a hall where I recently enjoyed two magnificent concerts and described it as the "wonderful auditorium at City Halls, which serves as the BBCSSO's preferred recording studio - - superb acoustic, unrivalled in Great Britain".

The 5th & 4th are the most dramatic, but neither of them are good to hear more than occasionally; they are more effective in live performance. The shock measures, the 4th's "battle" between two sets of timpani and the 5th's between the orchestra and "a renegade snare-drummer", are less effective when you know them and are not physically present in the hall.

Nielsen is unusual amongst symphonists in that each one inhabits a different musical world. The sixth, which used to be thought problematic, is very much of our time now, I felt upon hearing it again after some years. It used to be considered by some writers to be pessimistic, and Robert Simpson, who was responsible for the championship of Nielsen through the BBC, speaks of it connecting with the composer having suffered a series of heart attacks.

Clearly there are ironies, especially that Nielsen had called it Sinfonia semplice (Simple Symphony). "Being hard to grasp, it has remained the least performed of all six symphonies."

Now, in the 21st C., I was struck by its humour, surely intended and not all that heavy; lots of sudden disruptions of a more lightly scored surface, and it all finishing with a bassoon 'raspberry'. I loved it and would suggest playing these symphonies in reverse order, ending with the 1st, which follows formal patterns current in the early '90s. Soon thereafter he stopped planning his works, which developed intuitively, almost of their own accord, he felt.

I am not into comparative reviewing; I had Launy Grondhal's original Danish HMV 78s recordings, and do not feel as critical of Vänskä as Classics Today's David Hurwitz, who liked best Nos 3 & 4 but feels that as a whole they 'don't surpass the new Dacapo set under Schonwandt as a first choice'. Check also MusicWeb's Rob Barnett, who finds them "Good to excellent performances, extremely well engineered".

Peter Grahame Woolf

Illustration from Boston review of 5th Symphony