Thursday, February 21, 2008

Music that lives dangerously

Alex Ross, in The New Yorker, revisits the music of the Danish late romantic/early modern Carl Nielsen, arguably the most underrated composer of the past 100 years:

"Given the blazing individuality of Nielsen’s voice, it’s puzzling that he has yet to find a firm place in the international repertory," Ross writes.

The solution to the puzzle comes later in the essay: "Players need to believe fervently in this music if they are to bring it fully to life." That's true of any music, of course, but especially so of Nielsen's, which cannot be played convincingly with the detached refinement that is the default mode of most classical performers today.

Musicians – and listeners – who aren't prepared to live dangerously, to harness the energy of primal forces, aren't ready for Carl Nielsen.

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Among the Nielsen discs that Ross cites, the one I would start with is an incandescent Fourth Symphony ("Inextinguishable") recorded in 1966 by the Chicago Symphony, Jean Martinon conducting (RCA 76237), which also includes fine performances of the Second Symphony ("The Four Temperaments") and "Helios" Overture, recorded in Chicago around the same time with Martinon and Morton Gould conducting, and a 1980s performance of the miniature "The Fog Is Lifting" by flutist James Galway and harpist Sioned Williams.