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.

3 Responses to “The Incredible Hipness of Carl Nielsen”
  1. Graham Rieper says:

    Well, lordy, after listening to Nielsen’s music for decades…let’s see, there have been about 10 cycles of his symphonies on record…a few folks out there must like him, but –hooray– now we have the extra added comfort of knowing he is incredibly hip and a most prescient locus classicus of stylistic fragmentation and heterogeneity. Pardon, while I go out back and shoot off some rockets.

  2. Kyle Gann says:

    Nielsen is indeed incredibly hip. I feel compelled to add, though, that his Fifth Symphony, not mentioned here – written in response to WWI and embodying a kind of triumph over militarism – is widely regarded as his greatest work, and I think rightly so. At the same time, my sentimental favorite work of his is a little tone poem called Saga-Drom. And everyone with any interest in postmodernity should become familiar with the Nielsen Sixth. For Jonathan Kramer (who explored the postmodern in music more coherently and thoroughly than anyone else), it was, along with works by Ives, the most prescient locus classicus of stylistic fragmentation and heterogeneity.

  3. Andrew says:

    The DaCapo orchestral disc is good, but it is not the finest recording of Nielsen’s shorter orchestral works that I have heard.

    That honor goes to the BIS set, with Myung-Whun Chung and the Gothenberg Symphony. Recorded in the 1980’s and the very early 1990’s, that set includes the symphonies, the concertos and the shorter orchestral works. Neeme Jarvi was brought in to complete the set after Chung left Gothenburg, and Jarvi was responsible for the fourth and sixth symphonies, the least successful portion of the recorded cycle.

    The performances are available in two forms: a multi-disc set containing the complete symphonies and concertos only; and six individual discs that include the shorter orchestral works as well as the symphonies and concertos.

    This is the finest Nielsen cycle I have ever heard on disc, and I believe that I have heard them all. Almost without exception, the shorter orchestral works receive the very finest performances on disc, which is also true of the Clarinet Concerto and the Symphony No. 3.

    The recording quality is magnificent, helped, no doubt, by the sound of the Gothenburg concert hall, that weird, 1920’s, oddly-shaped concert hall that features miraculous sound, supposedly the very finest acoustics in the world, superior even to the acoustics of the Musikverein.

    This set is the finest thing Chung has ever done on disc.