Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
THE TWO giants of early 20th century Scandinavian music, Nielsen and Sibelius, have not achieved equal success outside their native countries. Although Nielsen once had the distinction of being crowned Scandinavia's greatest composer, with Sibelius himself quoted as having said to him: "I don't reach as high as your ankles," he did not achieve international recognition until after the Second World War, by which time Sibelius was being performed and recorded abroad with the regularity of a classic master.

The reasons for this are perhaps similar to those that have been said to account for the unjust neglect of much of Haydn's work as opposed to Mozart's. Their is an element of romantic subjectivity in Mozart which Haydn's intellectual sinew could not admit. Similarly, there is a balance of heart and mind in Nielsen which does not find it as easy to attract audiences as Sibelius' powerfully suppressed romanticism.

Few nowadays would be willing to argue the superiority of either great composer over the other, but the concert and recorded repertories have yet to recognise their equality, and events like BBC Radio 3's Nielsen Festival last week are still needed to restore the balance. Other arts describe life, Nielsen once said, music is life, and under the title Music as Life, Osmo Vanska and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra surveyed the complete symphonic canon over four evenings. These included some magnificently spirited performances through which it could truly be said the high current of Nielsen's creative life force continually flowed. The titanic struggles which erupt in the last three symphonies were exhilaratingly characterised, and placed in masterfully controlled overall structures. Taut and concentrated though these interpretations were, there was still room for expansion, including space for a tenderness which while utterly unsentimental was most touching.

As preparation for the crowning glory of the cycle - a shattering performance on Monday of the mighty Fifth Symphony - there was on Saturday afternoon a specially commissioned fantasy about the work which did an eloquent job in charting its unique emotional and intellectual territory. Time was when Radio 3, or its equivalent, presented programmes every week which seriously discussed a piece of music. For whatever reason, such broadcasts became increasingly rare. Perhaps the upper echelons at the BBC felt that listeners did not want the equivalent of a lecture. Was the word elitist banded about? I think I'll scream if I hear that word traduced much more. It involves the maintenance of high standards not condescension.

There are many that I know regret the loss of programmes like Antony Hopkins' Talking About Music, and in an era obsessed with soundbites, help with listening to long symphonic spans can be a useful antidote. It does not have to be aimed above the heads of the technically uninitiated, and this programme proved how musical processes can be verbalised in terms of life experience.

Nielsen's own mordant written and spoken phrases, for instance, were drawn upon with great profit. At the beginning of the Fifth Symphony he felt as if he was walking in the countryside, ideas occurred to him without conscious effort as if concerning vegetative nature; later more conscious effort enabled him to come to grips with existence's warring elements. Such descriptions need to be acutely focused if naivety is to be avoided, and this programme got it just right. I relished Stephen Johnson's perception that an act of will, not organic evolution, yields the symphony's triumph - a profound thought to be mulled over. More of this kind of thing, please.