For reasons I no longer remember, I had always thought of Carl Nielsen as a stodgy composer whose works were a little severe and chilly–the musical equivalent of one of Bergman’s more depressing films. Winter Light in grainy, black and white sound. I started to rethink (or I should say, to relisten to) Nielsen a couple of years ago when Alex Ross mentioned in one of our discussions here that he considered Uncle Carl to be one of the most “underrated” modern composers.
Last year’s DaCapo release of the opera Maskarade convinced me that I had gotten Nielsen all wrong. He’s really an enormously fun guy with a wicked sense of humor, a refined touch of romance, and a level of formal neoclassic chops that are matched only by Stravinsky. Maybe. Nielsen just might be better.
To bolster that argument, let me point to two new Nielsen releases from DaCapo that have appeared so far this year. The first is a collection of his shorter opera and theater pieces called Orchestral Music played with unbridled enthusiasm and skill by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Thomas Dausgaard. Playful, refined, beautifully performed and recorded, it’s no surprise that both Gramophone and Classics Today picked the disk as their “CD of the Month.” It will certainly be near the top of our list of best recordings of the year.
As will String Quartets Vol. 1, which features two of Nielsen’s string quartets (in G minor and G major) and the only string quintet (in G major) he ever composed. Lovingly played by the Young Danish String Quartet, with Tim Fredericksen on viola, this is moving, passionate, deeply romantic music that can, if you’re paying close attention, move you to tears by its sheer perfection.
I’m prepared to say that these are the two best Nielsen recordings ever made, although I obviously haven’t heard them all. I simply can’t imagine recordings that could be any better.