“I don’t reach as high as your ankles,” said the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) to his Danish contemporary and peer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Honored in their native countries to an extent we Americans could not imagine for one of our classical composers, Nielsen and Sibelius also deserve a chapter in any history of the symphony, the genre to which they contributed some of the greatest works of their era.
But in 2015, their common sesquicentennials, Sibelius holds a decisive edge on Nielsen in number of performances, size of discography, and place in the music-loving public’s consciousness. I could imagine a few reasons why this might be. Sibelius long outlived Nielsen, and remained a well-known if somewhat controversial figure to his death, thirty years after composing anything of substance. With such perennial favorites as “Finlandia,” “The Swan of Tuonela” and “Valse triste,” Sibelius scores far higher than Nielsen on the classical hit parade. And it is the Finn, much more than the Dane, whose quintessentially “Nordic” sound presages the many current composers who have turned Scandinavia and the Baltics into possibly the world’s most fertile ground — certainly the leading producer per-capita — for earworthy contemporary classical music.
It could also be that it takes a few more listens to unpack all the stuff Nielsen crams into his works, especially the major works of his last creative years, than it does for even Sibelius’s most advanced scores. For while Nielsen began his career in the late 19th century as a fairly unchallenging if engaging and imaginative post-romantic, by the 1910’s, he was composing some of the wildest and weirdest music of the time. By turns densely dramatic, folk-song simple and bitingly satirical, encompassing everything from from chaotic violence to clog dances and fart jokes, Nielsen’s later works are as modern as anything composed by any of the officially approved “modernists” — without, however, ever leaving the listener behind.
But don’t take it from me. Take it from these stunning performances by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra with a distinguished Nielsen tradition going back to Leonard Bernstein, here wrapping up their recorded-in-concert series of Nielsen’s six symphonies with Nos. 5 & 6 (“Sinfonia semplice,” i.e., “Simple Symphony”). That these works are fabulously innovative for their time, or for any time, will be evident to any listener, regardless of listening experience. Rather than walk you through them, a tedious and unnecessary process, I direct you to dive right in, starting with the amazingly odd and powerful first movement of the Symphony No. 5. You’ve never heard anything like it.
“Bravissimo” to each and every member of the Philharmonic, who individually (there’s seemingly a solo in every bar) and collectively (what a powerful sound!) play with magnificent artistry. And kudos to Alan Gilbert for leading performances of drama and imagination without manner or distortions.
For instant gratification and excellent sound quality (I recommend the FLAC 16-bit download for a very reasonable $12.86), go to eClassical, a fine service run by Sweden’s excellent BIS records. And while you’re there, why don’t you pick up the other two CDs in the Philharmonic’s Nielsen series? You’ll be glad you did. In the meantime, here’s the Spotify playlist.