The hugely vital symphonies of Carl Nielsen seem always on the verge of gaining broader popular currency, only to recede again into the domain of special pleading. Blame musical nationalism for one, which lofts certain composers into the pantheon while sidelining others. Nor is the playing field of our assumptions in this area remotely even.
Germany, for instance, gets so many spots in this pantheon that we typically don’t think of its composers as German per se, but simply as purveyors of universal music. Meanwhile, other parts of Europe seem fated to have just a sole musical representative. “How could there possibly be two great modern Scandinavian composers?” Leonard Bernstein once asked, mocking precisely these assumptions, before stating plainly: “Well, there are.” He meant of course Sibelius and Nielsen.
Nielsen’s heated Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” is back on the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s agenda this week at Symphony Hall. It’s a work that captures the animating tension near the heart of many Nielsen scores: a reverence for 19th-century craft alongside an ideal of what he called “living music,” that is, a desire to shrug off the weight of tradition in favor of music that kicks and thrashes in the here and now. “The claims of life are stronger than the sublimest art,” Nielsen wrote. The Fourth asks whether those claims can in fact be one and the same, a question particularly urgent as Europe descended into the abyss of war just as he wrote this symphony, exactly one century ago.
The Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer, in his BSO debut on Thursday night, led a fluid reading of this sinuous score. In these parts one naturally hears more about Alan Gilbert’s ongoing Nielsen Project at the New York Philharmonic but Fischer has also conducted a full Nielsen cycle with the Utah Symphony, where he has succeeded Keith Lockhart as music director. He showed an instinctual feel for the flow of linked movements, and more broadly, for this score’s odd musical syntax, its pairing of strangeness and inexorability, though at several points one wished for a reading that dug a bit deeper and offered a greater ratio of heat to light.
For its part the BSO played with a precision and commitment that made you wish it tackled more Nielsen. The finale’s famous martial volley between dueling timpanists was taken up in this case by Timothy Genis and Daniel Bauch, sending up blasts of meticulous thunder from opposite corners at the back of the stage.
The first half was devoted to Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, with the Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder returning to the orchestra for the first time since 1986. His sound was slightly pressed at times, and the partnership with Fischer seemed only partially gelled. Buchbinder’s technique is far from flawless but he has years of experience in this repertoire, and it showed most rewardingly in the shaping of certain hushed phrases of this work’s timeless slow movement, in which the tumult of the outer movements clears away and the solo line turns inward. Only in music, it’s been said, can one openly confess as Brahms does here while at the same time keeping his secrets.
The program was originally scheduled to be led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. This week’s performances are dedicated to his memory.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com