I woke up and knew it was the right message for me today. And maybe for all of us. As it happens the last and best two symphonies by Carl Nielsen, No. 5 and No. 6, were up for the classical blog as a concluding volume in the definitive set by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert (DeCapo 6.220625). They happen to fit right in with the idea that you do best by being yourself, your best creative self. Carl Nielsen was in the end no leader of modern schools of composition. He most waywardly and perhaps even obstinately insisted on being himself, neither a screaming modernist nor an old-fashioned conservative, making music that was not supposed to be beautiful, but "characteristic," as he told a musician who was performing one of the symphonies in those first days after the player asked him, "Is this supposed to be beautiful?" Not beautiful. Characteristic.
Paradoxically Nielsen's 5th and 6th are two of the most beautiful symphonies of the 20th century. But they redefined beautiful to fit Nielsen's vision of it. They are monuments in Nielsenism, titanic structure in motion, beautifully expressive but not sentimental in the Victorian drawing room sense of beauty, with hot house flowers, over-stuffed furniture and a ton of gimcracks and geegaws. Everything fits together beautifully. There is not an ounce of excess and the passages are all rather totally selfless in the most self-filled way.
I've long cherished both symphonies. As for the Sixth, I have been happy with a number of versions over the years. For the Fifth an old LP by Jascha Horenstein and the New Philharmonia has long been the at the top of my list. Some of that was for the part of the symphony where the snare drummer was instructed to do his best to interrupt the orchestra with an all-out assault, something that appealed very much to my classically trained percussionist sympathies. The snare drummer for the New Philharmonia sounds like Gene Krupa gone mad, hitting rimshots and causing a real ruckus. The New York Philharmonic's snare drummer is much more in the rudimentary, let's just march the hell off of here mode.
But in all other ways Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic carry the day, with carefully impassioned readings of both symphonies that are surely to my mind definitive. It is a moving disk, something a Nielsenite will cherish and a newcomer will get the best possible way into the works. This is by all means a triumph! Now I must find a middle ages banquet table and cut a hole in the wall. Nielsen is the 20th century model of a go-to-hell originality. Only he didn't go to hell. What better time than now to be reminded of what counts?
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