An Alan Gilbert performance symphony prompts a NielsenFest
I’ve had Danish music on the brain lately. No doubt one reason is that Alan Gilbert (a client of my company, 21C Media Group) and the New York Philharmonic performed Nielsen’s Second Symphony, The Four Temperaments, recently in New York, which made me realise that in 25 years of concert-going, the only conductor I’ve heard in live performances of Nielsen’s symphonies is Alan. Given how much I like Nielsen’s music, I’m grateful that someone I work with is a real advocate for his music (rumour has it that the New York Philharmonic has plans to record a cycle of Nielsen symphonies with Alan, but nothing official has been announced). Over the years I’ve heard Alan conduct Nielsen’s Third Symphony with the Chicago Symphony as well as the Curtis Symphony Orchestra (Alan is an alumnus of the Curtis School of Music, which is also a 21C client), and his Second Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra. There’s also some Nielsen programmed for his next season with the New York Philharmonic.
It was Karajan’s recording of Nielsen’s Symphony No 4 with the Berlin Philharmonic that was my first experience with the great Danish composer’s music. I remember the DG album with the rainbow on the cover and that wonderfully strange German word Das Unauslöschliche (which I soon learned meant The Inextinguishable) as the work’s subtitle. I fell in love with that piece immediately. I loved the muscular angularity of it, the intense, nervous energy (how about that crazy fugue!), the explosive climaxes (including the famous battle between the two sets of timpani) and the big heroic theme. I liked the message of the piece too: even in the grip of the horrors of the First World War Nielsen was able to assert that the spirit of man would somehow endure even the worst of mankind’s self-inflicted atrocities.
Over the years I explored the rest of Nielsen’s six symphonies, thanks in part to the great cycle that Herbert Blomstedt made with the San Francisco Symphony (still available on Decca), and the Fifth quickly rose in my estimation – Myung-Whun Chung’s recording of the Fifth on BIS is one of my favourite Nielsen recordings of all) – rivaling the Fourth in my personal pantheon. I’ve grown fond of the Third but don’t know it as well yet (Alan has told me that the Third is probably his personal favourite).
For fear of overplaying Nielsen’s symphonies, and in my endless quest to find more orchestral repertoire to obsess about, I’ve been exploring works by other Danish composers. In the process, I’ve really enjoyed hearing some of Vagn Holmboe’s works, both the quartets and the wonderfully rugged (13!) symphonies (Owain Arwel Hughes’s cycle of the latter with the Aarhus Symphony for BIS is consistently thrilling). Rued Langgaard’s fabulously strange Music of the Spheres gets a compelling performance by Thomas Dausggard and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (DNSO) on a recording from Dacapo (I’m only now digging in to those same forces’ traversal of Langgaard’s 16 symphonies for that same label, beginning this evening with the First Symphony, which thus far sounds like a rich blend of Straussian opulence and Scriabinesque ecstasy). Turns out Dausgaard and the DNSO also caught my ear with their recent recording of Per Norgard’s Third Symphony, paired with No. 7, also on Dacapo (lucky for Danish music, the Dacapo label is on the scene doing so much to preserve and promote that country’s musical legacy).
Poul Ruders has probably been the contemporary Danish composer that I’ve heard about most, in particular his operas. I’ve heard some of his orchestral works before, but none of them has really “stuck” with me yet. Also, thanks to performances by Leif Ove Andsnes (also a 21C client), I’ve heard a few piano works by Bent Sorensen that I found appealing and evocative.
So now I open this post to the reader, to whom I ask: what are your favourite works by Danish composers, past and present, that you feel are worth hearing, or that might actually rival some of Nielsen’s works for that elusive title of “masterpiece"?