City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

Celebrating the music of Carl Nielsen, the Hallé and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras are beginning the new year by leaving symphonic visiting cards on each other's home territory.

British audiences have never been quite sure about Nielsen, but are having a chance to reassess him in a cycle of all six of his symphonies in two concerts by each orchestra in Birmingham and Manchester. Both bands have form in this field – Simon Rattle and John Barbirolli having championed the great Dane, while Mark Elder has proved his Nielsen credentials in performances with the Hallé at the BBC Proms, in Vienna, and in an incisive interpretation of the Fifth Symphony on CD.

There's no lack of obvious intensity in Nielsen's turbulent Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable", with which the CBSO launched the series. The conducting was to have been shared between the CBSO's Finnish principal guest conductor Sakari Oramo and Elder (though not directing each other's orchestras, which would have been interesting). But Oramo had to pull out and it fell to the young Russian Dmitri Slobodeniouk to evoke the elemental will to live that drives this symphony to its thunderous end.

It's trickier to find such a hard-grained focus in the sixth and last symphony, Sinfonia semplice. But, standing in for Oramo before a somewhat muted matinée audience, the fellow-Finnish conductor Okko Kamu forged an ardent intensity, striking exactly the right tempo for the angular opening movement, toying with its tinkling glockenspiel and tick-tock woodwind. Even the "Humoresque" second movement, with its sardonic send-up of "modern music" and burlesque brass comments, made some sort of sense.

In the second symphony, The Four Temperaments, Kamu captured the pictorial imagery of the wild Choleric temperament, the languid Phlegmatic, the sombre Melancholic, and the jogging Sanguine finale in a refreshingly open-hearted portrayal by the CBSO.

A beautiful account of Nielsen's Helios Overture opened the concert, with the strings displaying shimmering clarity. The same reflective poise characterised Akiko Suwanai's expressive playing in Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto, especially in the fantastical opening of the third movement.

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