Germans invented the profession of music historian, so it's not surprising that the history of music should have the history of German music at its center. The music of Scandinavia, like that of Hungary and various other nations bordering on the German-speaking world, was considered provincial, or at best nationalistic, as opposed to universal. This helps to explain why Carl Nielsen, an orchestral fiddler who grew up in the Danish countryside and became a celebrated composer, made his base in Copenhagen — not far, geographically, from Brahms'hometown of Hamburg but still today an outer circle of prestige. Revered in Scandinavia, respected in the rest of Europe and wastefully ignored in the United States, Nielsen is ripe for rediscovery, and Osmo Vänskä's set of recordings with the BBC Scottish Symphony would be a good place to begin.
Nielsen is hard to get right. Each of the Second Symphony's four movements express one of the four temperaments — choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine — and the work begins in anger. The tempo lunges and slows, rhythms gallop and brass outbursts come with minimal warning. Played without conviction, this music comes out gluey and unfocused, but the Finnish conductor and the Scottish musicians know how to handle a dark Nordic surge of melody. The second movement (“phlegmatic”) opens with a gracious Sunday-in-the-country lilt of a kind that Stephen Sondheim recycled for his own Scandinavian pastoral A Little Night Music. Vänskä evokes coolness without actually letting the music chill — even a dispassionate Nielsen is always slightly feverish. But it's in the final movement, with its skipping fanfares and gymnastic timpani, that the performance acquires its brightest glow and the brass players earn their pay. The performance is not just sanguine, as the subtitle demands, but downright impish.
The Fifth Symphony is generally considered Nielsen's masterpiece, and it certainly has the conviction of its own eccentricities. In the opening bars, Vänskä savors its daubs of orchestral color: a silvery tremolo in the strings, a shadowed tune broken by a streak of loud bassoons, a piercing accent in the strings. The combination of mistiness and vividness gives the symphony its character, reaching a pitch of insanity at the end of the first part, when a snare drum with a tempo of its own marches through the orchestra's synchronized wailing like a lone foot soldier in the middle of an air raid. It's an intimation of cataclysm for which the agitated movement that follows provides little consolation.