This year marks the 150th anniversary of the births of the composers Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. Finnish violinist and conductor John Storgårds has recorded the complete symphonies of both these Nordic composers, and here tells BBC Music Magazine what the experience has been like.
In this anniversary year, Sibelius and Nielsen are often mentioned in the same breath. But how do they compare?
When Sibelius started writing a new symphony he always started from zero. It was a new adventure with each symphony. He was always developing his way of composing, but each piece was individual and unexpected. With Nielsen it's the opposite. All his symphonies can be seen as one big shape. He develops naturally from one to the next. But both composers are innovative and extremely full of life energy. Whatever drama they put into their music, what you really get from both these guys' music is positive and uplifting, they are full of belief in life winning over death.
So how do you approach their music?
As a conductor you have to try out different balances, colours, sounds and details much more with Sibelius. For Nielsen it's clearer and more concrete in the score. You can really go for doing what is really there. Of course you can interpret Nielsen in many ways, but not too many ways. There aren't so many question marks, and you know what you want to aim for. With Sibelius you have to dig into details and try things out.
Could you give a quick guide to Nielsen's six symphonies, written between 1891 and 1925?
The least well known is No. 1, which is the most Classical. In many ways it's the most demanding for the performer. Nielsen isn't that experienced yet. He's getting there and has a lot of ideas, but he's not so sure about how to shape them. So it leaves quite a lot up to the interpreter.
With No. 2 it's completely there: what he is, what he wants, what his style and big idea – the 'Four Temperaments' – are. The Third is the most direct, Romantic piece. No. 4 is a tricky for the listener and technically for the performers, as is No. 5, not to mention No. 6. These final three become a bit more difficult. But if the performances are good then there shouldn't be a problem.
You've recorded them all with the BBC Philharmonic and are about to perform them. Are they enjoying this music?
Yes, and it really fits them perfectly. The energy that is already inside this orchestra is just what you need for Nielsen, and it also needs a straightforward approach. With Sibelius we needed a bit more time to get into it, which we did, but with Nielsen the approach has been a bit easier. It's been great to record the symphonies.
What Nielsen would you recommend for people to start with?
The Second Symphony would be a good piece, as it has everything that is Nielsen in it, and it's so clearly put. That would be a great introduction. And don't forget his chamber music. I'm a violinist, and I love his Second Violin Sonata, which is a fantastic piece. It's really worth discovering his string quartets, piano pieces, solo violin pieces and violin sonatas.
John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic perform all the Nielsen Symphonies at The Bridgewater Hall on 9, 13 and 18 June 2015. The concerts will be broadcast live on Radio 3. Their set of Nielsen Symphonies is available now on Chandos.
What to read next…