, December 2010
When I first received this CD, I had never heard of Niels Otto Raasted. When they first received the CD, retailers MDT and Presto Classical had never heard of him either; indeed, Raasted’s last appearance on disc was in 1997, when the Kontrapunkt label included one of his works on a “Danish Organ Music” album. Violinist Johannes Søe Hansen personally dug up the manuscripts to these solo violin sonatas in a Danish library, so this is about as little-known as little-known music gets. And yet Raasted’s solo violin sonatas are in fact modeled on some of the best-known music ever written: Bach’s violin sonatas and partitas.
Niels Otto Raasted, according to the informative and well-written booklet, was sent to Germany by his parents in order to undertake an apprenticeship as a goldsmith. He returned home with a degree in organ performance, a letter of recommendation from one of the world’s most prominent organists (Karl Straube), and lesson notes from composition study with Max Reger. He then settled in to a very long career as one of Denmark’s premier organists, presiding over the instrument at Copenhagen Cathedral for over thirty years and, in addition to regular performance, composing chorales and hymns.
In the early years of that career, though, before taking up the prestigious Copenhagen job, Raasted wrote for other instruments too; the booklet mentions three symphonies, and the CD itself presents for our inspection five sonatas for solo violin, written in 1918 and 1921. None have been recorded before. All are deeply indebted to Bach and Reger, and all impress with their sincerity and musicality, even if they do not strike me as inspired.
Some are more derivative than others. There is a D minor set that ends with a chaconne, for instance, and the chaconne is a slavish but short imitation of Bach’s. In fact all of the sonatas bear the stamp of Bach, the technical challenges of whose sonatas and partitas are never really exceeded, and of Reger, the emotional plainness of whose studies is omnipresent. That is not entirely fair: the finale of Op 18 No 1 is a recognizably cheery little air, the fugue in Op 18 No 2 is very dramatically constructed, and the pizzicato scherzo of Op 30 No 2 is a delight and a dramatic contrast with the emphatic finale. Op 30 No 2, in A minor, is the standout sonata in the group. But generally Raasted seems to be aiming for a sense of dignity, confidence, and majesty, rather than the emotional volatility of Ysaÿe’s roughly contemporaneous solo sonatas.
The problem Raasted faced when modeling these works on Bach is obvious: in any game of comparisons, Bach will always win. The Dane appears to have known this to some degree. The Raasted works are intentionally modest in dimensions (the longest, fourteen minutes), fairly modest in emotional scope and impact, and humble in their demands on the listener. It feels cruel to say that this music is similarly modest in its interest, but I do not know how else to put it. Johannes Søe Hansen plays with devotion and full technical command, but he might indulge Raasted’s solemn, buttoned-down conservatism a little too much. Or perhaps he found it impossible to escape, and is simply communicating the music’s solid construction as clearly as he can. The sound is good but a bit reverberant, which enhances the music’s own churchlike aesthetic.
So what is the appeal of this music? It is composed with craft, sincerity, and formal rectitude; that much is certain. Whether it is enjoyable is a question in answer to which individual listeners will differ. While in the British Library recently I read a sermon given in 1699, to a Society of Lovers of Musick, by William Sherlock, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Sherlock told the Musick Lovers (I have normalized capitalization for ease of reading), “A grave, serious mind, which is the temper of devotion, is disturbed by light and airy compositions, which disperse the thoughts, and give a gay and frisking motion to the spirits, and call the mind off from the praises of God, to attend meerly [sic] to the agreeable variety of sounds, which is all that can be expected from such sounds as have nothing of devotion in them.. I thank God, the ordinary service of our Church is very grave and solemn, and well fitted to devotion.” William Sherlock would have liked to meet Niels Otto Raasted.