Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is one of those composers with a "following," which is to say that his case has always needed special pleading beyond the borders of his native Denmark and a relatively narrow circle of fans elsewhere, including some famous and otherwise hugely influential conductors.
The "otherwise" qualification refers in particular to Leonard Bernstein. If even he couldn't do much permanently to boost the composer's stock, perhaps Nielsen is doomed, if that's the word, to elude acceptance by a wide public.
Which isn't surprising, for if ever music was enigmatic and unsettling, Nielsen's--above all in the orchestral works dating from the last decade of his life--is. These symphonies and concertos are full of strange humors, quirky rhythms, odd modulations, lightning mood swings and a predilection for the menacingly macabre. Nielsen is not a composer you'd care to meet in a dark alley.
These thoughts are inspired by another of those periodic spates of recorded activity on the Nielsen front, spearheaded by a new set of his six symphonies, of which the last three are the most interesting to these ears, from conductor Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon 437 507, 3 CDs).
These performances are radical in their simplicity: brisk, light in weight, texturally clarifying. It is rather as if the conductor and his responsive Swedish orchestra were out to divorce Nielsen altogether from the heavyweight late-19th-Century symphonic tradition, from which Nielsen, his equivocal attitude toward tonality notwithstanding--he never leaves it altogether, but flirts with some distant borders--didn't care to free himself.
With Jarvi, the timpani duel in the finale of the Fourth Symphony ("Inextinguishable"), the composer's most frequently encountered, is not so much reduced in volume as in scale by means of an uncommonly airy background to all the foreground bashing and banging.
The spectacular Fifth Symphony, which pits a manic snare drum against the entire orchestral apparatus, with frequent interjections from a howling clarinet, is much more quickly--and, again light-fingeredly--dispatched than is the norm.
The Sixth Symphony, an enigma among the enigmas, with its slyly nasty humor, outer-space twitterings and primordial bubblings, takes particularly well to Jarvi's chamber-like approach without effacing memories of the darker, more threateningly edgy interpretation on Sony by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony (a live presentation of the Sixth by Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic is overdue).
Jarvi is up against formidable competition in the Fourth Symphony from a new release in which Gennady Rozhdestvensky leads the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (Chandos 9260): deep, dark, ponderous yet with an unshakable rhythmic solidity. It's coupled with the pleasant, rather Brahmsian--perhaps even Brucknerian--First Symphony.
And speaking of competition, it doesn't come any tougher for Jarvi and all other comers than that provided in the Fifth Symphony from Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, whose harrowing interpretation of the early 1960s returns in a pairing with the more friendly Third Symphony ("Espansiva"), and at mid-price, to boot (Sony 47598).
The dips, gurglings and twists that make the Sixth Symphony such a stimulating experience are reflected as well in the Clarinet Concerto, newly recorded by some superbly equipped, sympathetic Belgian artists: soloist Walter Boeykens and an orchestra called the Beethoven Academie conducted by Jan Caeyers, who seem as intent on projecting the score's usually overlooked lyric elegance as its wry, spooky humor.
The Concerto is part of an attractive Nielsen-overview program (Harmonia Mundi 901489) for small orchestra that also includes the mid-period "Pan and Syrinx," the late "Love and the Poet" Overture and the early Little Suite for Strings, the last-named with no readily detectable foreshadowings of the original composer-to-be, but rather a delicious aftertaste of Grieg.
In each instance, Caeyers and his ensemble acquit themselves with highest distinction.