Classical: The Danish invasion

Carl Nielsen is Denmark's most famous composer, but he's just one of many being featured at this year's Proms.
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I have always adored the Danish island of Funen, though I never actually arrived there until last month. For years, Denmark's greatest composer after Buxtehude ferried me on the wings of his delightful "lyrical humoresque", Springtime in Funen. Nowadays, the train journey from Copenhagen to Funen speeds past windmills and sprays of poppies, beneath a stretch of sea and across a long bridge. Carl Nielsen would not have recognised the sophisticated railway station-cum-library complex in his home-town of Odense, still less the social problems that appear to be growing there. But he would surely be proud of the local symphony orchestra, their many recordings of his works, and the considerable achievements of the local music academy which bears his name (and which has enjoyed the attentions of Stockhausen, Lutoslawski and other notable "moderns").

Nielsen's birthplace is marked by a memorial stone and flagpole that stand amid acres of open farmland. And yet the humble dwelling that once stood there was deemed unfit for human habitation even during Nielsen's childhood, and was demolished long ago. The so-called Nielsen House (in which Nielsen lived for a relatively short period) was re-built brick by brick when nearby road construction necessitated its relocation. It is now a homely museum full of photographs, sketches, paintings and memorabilia, with the honeyed tenor of Aksel Schiotz - Denmark's long-lamented answer to Jussi Bjorling - warbling away in the background.

The nearby Nielsen Museum has a number of impressive sculptures by the composer's wife, Anne Marie Brodersen. Sitting in the garden, remembering those "springtime" songs and glancing across the fields, I could happily confirm that Nielsen really had transported me.

But back in Copenhagen, matters musical have come a long way since Nielsen's day. The city's musical community includes - for at least half of the year - Erling Blondal Bengtsson, a vivacious and disarmingly enthusiastic veteran cellist, who has premiered countless Danish works for cello and has just completed his second recording of Brahms's E minor Sonata (he made his first 50 years ago).

The city itself bristles with life, but its low skyline and fairy-tale cobbled squares hark back to a more leisured age. The Tivoli gardens programme just about everything from sugar-coated pantomime to hard rock. You can wine and dine in style, and if your stomach is strong enough, go on to plummet at speed from a huge tower.

Near the city centre stands the new, all-glass extension to the Royal Library, with its spacious exhibition areas and specialist centres. Niels Krabbe, director of the Music Department and general editor of the new Carl Nielsen Edition, beamed visibly as he handed me the first-ever printed full score of Nielsen's operatic masterpiece, Masquerade. The same house also guards the thousands of letters that will one day cast new light on Nielsen's extramarital amatory pursuits, though a family embargo means that we will be kept in suspense for a little longer.

Danish concert music cut fresh teeth when brave-hearts such as Per Norgard attended the Darmstadt Institute for Contemporary Music and, to quote fellow composer Poul Ruders, "came home shell-shocked from having been exposed to some of those wild experiments". Ruders balks at defining a modern-day Danish musical style. "Here the composer is the style," he insists. "We're very much entrenched in our own world of ideas. We are recalcitrant; we hate to tow the line. I can honestly say that no one in this country has ever done `as Herr Boulez says'."

Ruders launched his musical career as a church organist and enjoyed his first important foreign performance when Oliver Knussen gave Four Compositions with the London Sinfonietta in 1982. His monolithic soundscape Gong is due to strike thunder at the Proms next Thursday night, but one of his more recent works was premiered in Copenhagen last month as part of a gala concert given in aid of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). Its title, In spite of, refers obliquely to the rays of hope which are grasped in the face of those "atrocious, unfathomable atrocities called torture". Ruders based his material on a specially written theme by the Danish jazz trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, and completed the work in a fortnight.

The rest of the concert kept up the emotional pressure. Sir Derek Jacobi read a moving testimonial, "Impunity" by Isabel Allende, Aage Haugland narrated a harrowing account of Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw (one lady was sufficiently put out to rush from the hall) and Gerd Albrecht - chief conductor elect of the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra - conducted a reconstruction of the Second Symphony by the Czech composer Viktor Ullmann, a victim of the Holocaust.

"Even if Ullmann had not been in at Theresienstadt, I would still perform him as often as possible," Albrecht had told me earlier. As a young man, Albrecht had been unceremoniously "thrown out" by Hindemith for asking about the composer's earlier works, but his passion for the so-called Entartete musik (music that was banned by the Nazis) knows no bounds. He planned the IRCT concert himself: a highly-charged Eroica occupied the second half, though he is concocting an even broader musical menu for his forthcoming Copenhagen tenure.

One 20th-century Danish musical figure who has until recently languished in silent obscurity is Rued Langgaard (1893-1952), symphonist extraordinaire who created a Music of the Spheres that amazed even Ligeti. Langgaard has recently enjoyed the attentions of the local Danacord CD label, but now the rival DaCapo label is planning to enter the fray with a Langgaard series of its own.

Both companies have been unstintingly supportive of Danish music, Danacord with an important series of historical performances, DaCapo with more in the way of new works. However, Danish CD dealers are facing a big problem in that the new - and cheap - "recordable CD" format is encouraging people to borrow discs, record them, then steal the relevant booklets from the CDs in record shops.

London promenaders exploring the forthcoming "Nielsen experience" will confront an audacious voice, and the new Danish music seems ready to take its lead. Bent Sorensen has a new album called Birds and Bells due out on ECM; Ruders is planning an opera; and so is his contemporary, Bo Holton, who, as it happens, is making a Prom appearance conducting his own completion of the Missa Et ecce terrae motus or "Earthquake Mass" by the late 16th-century French composer Antoine Brumel.

I caught up with Holton prior to a last-minute rehearsal in St Peter's Church in Copenhagen. Brumel's work posed a fascinating challenge. "Some of the original pages are so mutilated you can't read them at all," says Holton, "only little `spots' here and there that suggest what the music might be like."

As to modern Danish music, both Holton and Ruders concur on the cataclysmic influence of Darmstadt, though Holton, in particular, seems to welcome its recession. "I think we'll see many more composers coming into focus now," he says. "Tonality has been re-conquered. Gifted people have been writing good things for years, and now we're in a position to listen to them without prejudice. I think it's wonderful."

Nielsen's `Springtime on Funen' and `Aladdin' Suite will be performed at the Proms on 29 July ; his `Espansiva' Symphony and Poul Ruders' `Gong' are given on 11 August, and Brumel's `Earthquake Mass' for 26 August. Other works by Nielsen are on the programmes for 2, 13, 14 and 22 August and 11 September and in lunchtime concerts on 7 August and 6 September