The BBC Symphony’s Nielsen cycle with its chief conductor Sakari Oramo has turned out to be one of the highlights of the current London season. Oramo has programmed each of the symphonies very thoughtfully, juxtaposing them with music composed elsewhere in Europe at more or less the same time. For the Fifth, the second of the twin peaks in Nielsen’s symphonic journey, that meant works from the 1920s by Ravel and Prokofiev. Ravel’s La Valse and Prokofiev’s Third Piano preceded the Fifth, but whether such an overwhelming experience as such a symphony had to be followed by anything, let alone Boléro, was another matter.
There is something totally assured about Oramo’s Nielsen and the immaculate, intensely characterful way in which the BBCSO play it. Some conductors make the climax of the Fifth’s first movement, with its anarchic improvising snare drum, more of a raucous free-for-all than it was here, but Oramo always had his mind on the work’s bigger picture.
If this really was Nielsen’s symphonic reaction to modernism, in the way that Sibelius’s Fourth had been a decade earlier, his performance suggested, then it was one that was made entirely on the composer’s own terms; and the warmth that he brought to the closing pages, when the music at last settles into the tonality it has been seeking all along, was wonderfully convincing.
La Valse was insidiously effective, too, with Oramo carefully teasing out the melodic tendrils that burrow their way through Ravel’s textures, and he brought the same incisive clarity to the Prokofiev concerto, too. The soloist, Alexander Toradze, was equally incisive, elegant in the slow movement and nothing like as noisy and bombastic as when he played this concerto with Gergiev and the LSO.
• Available on BBC iPlayer until 10 May.