Carl Nielsen was, like Sibelius, a great Nordic symphonic composer, and his career path was similar to that of Sibelius in that they both sought to divorce themselves from the emotional excesses of late Romanticism, albeit they achieved this in very different ways. In Nielsen’s late Clarinet Concerto (1928), his Classical idiom is at its purest, more so than in any of his other major works. However, he never went fully Neo-Classical, fashionable though that style was at the time. The small size of the orchestra is in itself a nod towards the Classical era: only two bassoons, two horns and a snare drum in addition to strings.
The genesis of the Clarinet Concerto lay in Nielsen becoming acquainted with the members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet in 1921. Their music-making inspired him to write his finest chamber music work, the Wind Quintet (1922). A while later, Nielsen developed the idea of writing a concerto for each member of the quintet, but he only completed the Flute Concerto (1926) and the Clarinet Concerto before death intervened. His Clarinet Concerto has since been rated as the finest work in its genre since Mozart.
As in his Violin Concerto (1911) and Flute Concerto, Nielsen here abandoned the traditional three-movement concerto structure and created a structure all his own, following its own internal logic. Through cast in a single movement, the Concerto does betray the outline of a traditional opening movement, slow movement, scherzo and finale. The work begins in an idyllic mood but evolves into a complex tapestry often characterised by abrupt shifts, with moods that are gentle, humorous, aggressive and solemn in turn. The snare drum emerges as an antagonist to the clarinet at times, playing the role of a disruptor in the same way though not as violently as it does in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony (1922).