The present-day active symphonists? I mean composers who devote themselves to a symphonic output--who write real symphonies? Perhaps there are less of them than there used to be. I am not one at this point to do a systematic survey of the recorded output of living composers and statistically compare the number of symphonies per se with those getting a hearing in 1960. It is an impression only.
Then of course there is the issue of quality. The survey is a daunting task that breaks down once your own evaluation has to come into play--because you cannot hear everything! And then your evaluation has a subjective component. That is perhaps the subject of a book. There is no question that orchestral writing continues on as always, but there may be less of the formal symphony coming to us. No matter.
So never mind. One thing I can say this morning. Per Nørgård, living Danish composer, most certainly is a symphonist, one of real stature. You can hear it in the recording just out of his first and current last symphonies, Symphonies 1 & 8 (Da Capo 6.220574), as recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic under Sakari Oramo. Surprisingly enough this is the first recording of the Vienna Philharmonic doing Nordic new music. They picked music we should hear and they do a very good job with it.
The first symphony (1953-55 rev. 1956) is in a somewhat romantic vein, Sibelius-like in its orchestrational brilliance. The 8th (2010-11) is more modernistic, fractalized and abstracted. This is the premier recording of the latter work and it is good to hear.
I suppose you could say comparing the two symphonies has an apples and oranges feel to it. They are both Per Nørgård-like, certainly. But I have not gotten my mental musical senses around what that is, precisely. And some of that is deliberate. Per Nørgård devised each symphony as something with its own distinct personality, as he remarks in the liners to this disk. Indeed the first and eighth do not seem of the same exact family, cousins more than siblings. Of course they show a change and a growth in the composer's style. The 8th belongs to 2010 as the 1st does the early fifties I suppose. Surely the styles exhibited here felt right to Nørgård when he sat down and wrote the music. And they still sound right, just different.
In common is a sort of musical panorama that cannot be easily put into words but has something Nordic about it. That is, each has a descriptive non-verbal elegance, an eloquence, a set of musical colors combined and juxtaposed skillfully and even brilliantly into structures of sound.
All of this should indicate to you that Per Nørgård's music is something I am coming to know only gradually. These two symphonies continue me on that tone-voyage of discovery. Both the more romantic and the more modern examples set forth on on this disk convince me that he belongs among the important symphonists of our time. The music holds up under intensive scrutiny. As charming and dazzlingly dramatic as the first is, the eighth is more on the contrasting expressive-modern-cubistic whole-in-significant-parts side of possibilities. Just for the premier of the 8th alone this is an important disk. The inclusion of the 1st gives you a wide perspective on the composer. And the performances are committed and sonically grand.