Classical: The other Scandinavian symphonist

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Carl Nielsen series

Glasgow City Hall

John Adams: 'Century Rolls'

LSO, Barbican, EC2

John Tavener: 'In the Month of Athyr'

Tallis Scholars, National Gallery, WC1

There's no particular reason to expect composers to look like their work - and most of them don't - but I'm always struck by the dissimilarity betwen the physical appearance and the output of Carl Nielsen. Spiky-haired and pug-dog cute, with eyes that look as though they're summing up the possibility of stealing apples from a tree: you see it in his photographs and wonder where on earth that big-boned, elemental, "life-force" music came from.

In a sense, of course, we know exactly where it came from. When Nielsen's 3rd Symphony had its premiere in Stuttgart in 1913, a German critic hailed it as "a mighty, animating call from the North". But then, Nielsen spent much of his life in Copenhagen, which considers itself the Mediterranean playground of Scandinavia. And no doubt there were nights in the Tivoli gardens that contributed to the assured good humour which accompanies the "call" and marks out Nielsen's work as something of a different order to the bleak severity of that other Nordic giant, Sibelius.

That Sibelius was an exact contemporary has always been a problem for the two composers. They appeared like rivals, forcing listeners to make a choice; and initially, the world outside Denmark chose Sibelius. But in recent years, a serious Nielsen industry has grown up - in the recording studio, at least. The frequency of live performance hasn't been so startling, although there was a Rattle cycle in Birmingham and London a few years ago. And in Glasgow, all six symphonies have just had a high-profile outing courtesy of the BBC Scottish SO under its conductor Osmo Vanska.

To the ears of Glasgow concert-goers, Vanska has been something of a "call from the north" himself: a Finn who came to international prominence through fine Sibelius recordings with the otherwise unheard-of Lahti Symphony. He took charge of the BBC Scottish SO in 1996, when the orchestra was in poor shape after several years with the wayward Jerzy Maksymiuk. Almost immediately, things began to look up. There was a new discipline, a new vision. And, although the orchestra remains a patchy ensemble - strong in some departments, weak in others - loins have been conspicuously girded. Vanska has initiated some big projects in recent seasons: cycles of Sibelius and Beethoven, with this Nielsen series following suit.

That the concerts have been taking place in Glasgow's City Hall hasn't been ideal. The flock wallpaper you can just about ignore. The dead, raw, in-your-face acoustic you can't. But the playing has been strong and energised, if sometimes too short-winded to bring off the soaring aerial ascents that Nielsen asks for. And Vanska certainly knows what he's dealing with in this extraordinary music. Nielsen was a one-off: he belongs to no school. Although three generations of critics have categorised him as a classicist - citing the clear, transparency of his scoring, the insistent ostinatos, the assertive counterpoint - there are Romantic traits as well. The rush of blood that surges periodically through his orchestra is to the heart not to the head. It has to be accounted for, and Vanska does so - with a sure feel for the "current" that connects Nielsen's ideas together. These were bold, exhilarating readings that place Vanska in the class of specialist interpreters. He touched the greatness of these symphonies. And they are great. In the entire symphonic repertory, I can't think of a more inspiring work than Nielsen's 4th; numbers 3 and 5 belong with the immortals too. I hope this Glasgow series - every concert with a national broadcast - will have telegraphed that fact into the minds (and hearts) of British audiences.

The London Symphony has for a long while had a hot-line to America, maintained by Andre Previn, Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas. Out of it has come a special friendship with John Adams, who is arguably the most sucessful composer in the US today, and the only American minimalist who knows what to do with an orchestra when he's offered one. Last Sunday he was at the Barbican, to conduct the LSO in the British premiere of his new Piano Concerto, with the soloist Emmanuel Ax. And it turned out to be an attractive piece that aims to please: accessible, jokey, and fun, with optional complexities for ears that want to take it further. The jokes begin upfront, in the name Adams has applied to the piece: Century Rolls, after the rolls of perforated paper that used to drive player-pianos. It suggests an image of the ghosts of keyboard writers of the past, raised mechanistically and lured into the present. And the way Adams turns that into music strikes me as a counterpart to how the Mormons posthumously baptise long-dead people into their religion. Adams is musically baptising Copland, Satie, Ravel, Stravinsky and others into minimalism. And however he resists the label, this concerto is a fundamentally minimalist piece - complete with running ostinatos and a strong, insistent pulse, albeit overlaid with syncopated rhythms which disorient your sense of where the pulse is coming from.

As usual with Adams, though, this is a piece that gets the better of minimalism (with most composers it's the other way round) and does more than merely rob you, drug-like, of a sense of time. There is a core of substance to it. But there isn't a truly virtuoso role for Mr Ax, who tends to roll on with the orchestra rather than stand against it. But perhaps that's not, these days, the alpha and omega of concerto form.

John Tavener also unveiled a new piece this week: an unaccompanied choral setting, In the Month of Athyr. It's much like all the other Tavener choral settings except shorter (no bad thing, without his endlessly repeating verse/refrain device that teases four minutes' music into 24 minutes' duration) and with the stronger, denser harmonies he used more often in the past than now. That may well be because the piece commemorates an old relationship with the Tallis Scholars, who were championing Tavener before he became a cult figure and have continued to make him their sole incursion into modern repertory. Just about everything else they sing is Renaissance polyphony. And of course, they do it very well, with a discography whose rich, impressive sound positions them as something like a Berlin Philharmonic among British choirs.

But that's their problem: they are creatures of the microphone. And in the flesh on Tuesday they were disappointing: bland, unvaried, unexciting, in a programme that should have been special because it marked their 25th anniversary. The whole thing was miscalculated. It took place in the dry, unatmospheric National Gallery, with the audience dispersed through various rooms - largely remote from the performers who were evidently singing for their sponsors. The rest of us seemed there merely to make up numbers - and to celebrate the presence (distantly) of Sting, who had been booked to narrate (badly) a handful of spoken words in the Tavener. With so little to do, he was brought back at the end to join the Scholars in an arrangement of one of his own songs. As the culmination of a programme of Renaissance masters it was tacky, downbeat, and what politicians call a Serious Lapse of Judgement.

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