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Classical home listening: Carl Nielsen: The Symphonies; Alex Paxton’s Happy Music for Orchestra

May 13, 2023

Thrilling performances from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Fabio Luisi could convert anyone to Nielsen, while Paxton will make your ears ping Sat 13 May 2023 07.00 EDT Clarity and immediacy are hallmarks of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), a point made by Fabio Luisi in the notes for The Symphonies (Deutsche Grammophon, 3CDs), in which he conducts the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Written across the span of his creative life, Nielsen’s six symphonies at first sound straightforward yet break all rules and wander into the strangest terrains. The First is economical, only hinting at what might follow. Four of the six have names: No 2, “The Four Temperaments”, has a powerfully melancholic third movement, a striking contrast to the essential extroversion of the others. No 3, “Sinfonia espansiva”, with its whipcrack opening and intoxicating merry-go-round waltz, is among his most performed. No 4, “The Inextinguishable”, perhaps his best, written during the first world war, is darker, brooding, mighty. The experimental No 5, in two movements, embraced the impact of war and of a crisis in Nielsen’s private life. No 6, “Sinfonia semplice”, sees a paring back, raw and exposed. These performances, recorded in Copenhagen’s Koncertsalen, are thrilling enough to turn you into a Nielsen addict (he has never quite had the attention he deserves), performed by the Danes and Luisi with zest, wit and restless freedom. Also check out Nielsen’s Violin Concerto played by James Ehnes and the Bergen Philharmonic conducted by Edward Gardner and paired with “The Inextinguishable”, out this week on Chandos. Once you get the taste for this music it’s hard to resist. With its daring title, Happy Music for Orchestra (Delphian), the British composer Alex Paxton (b.1990) brings brightly coloured, loopy joy to our ears. The track titles – Love Kittens, Od Ody Pink’d, Strawberry – give an idea of the music’s sweet energy and frenetic humour. On this album for Dreammusics Orchestra and Ensemble, Paxton is “improvising trombonist” and conductor too. It’s jazzy and noisy and oddly serious. In mental health awareness week, Radio 3’s Between the Ears asks: “What does mental health sound like?” With Prof Sally Marlow of King’s College London. Sunday, 6.45pm and BBC Sounds . Topics

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