, March 2009
Copenhagen-born Otto Mortensen may be little known outside Denmark but he is regarded as one of the country’s foremost song composers of the 20th century. He belongs to the same generation as Herman D. Koppel and Vagn Holmboe or, to mention three reasonably well known Swedish composers, Dag Wirén, Lars-Erik Larsson and Gunnar de Frumerie. De Frumerie a particularly relevant comparison since he was also a brilliant composer of songs.
Mortensen’s generation were not die-hard modernists as those colleagues born just before the turn of the century: Riisager and Bentzon and in Sweden Hilding Rosenberg. They were rather drawn to ‘utility music’, in Mortensen’s case Hindemith became a source of inspiration. He went to Charlottenburg in Berlin in the summer of 1930 where Hindemith was teaching and he brought his ideas back to Denmark. He also encountered the music of Kurt Weill and back home he wrote songs in German cabaret style for Lulu Ziegler, whose regular accompanist he was at the beginning of her career. An echo of that can be heard in the song Mirakler (tr. 21), which has a nicely lilting rhythm, faintly reminiscent of Weill’s early style.
Mortensen studied with Hans Eisler and also with Darius Milhaud. His oeuvre encompasses a symphony, some other orchestral works and chamber music but first and foremost he wrote vocal music, including lots of choral music. He is a great favourite with Danish choirs.
The songs on this disc span a period of almost twenty-five years, from the early Danmark, nu blunder den lyse nat (1928) to Forsommersang (1951). He continued composing until the very end but the selection here is possibly from the most creative part of his life. It should be noted that he didn’t always publish his songs immediately but preferred to collect them in thematic groups. Thus the 10 Danish Songs, published in 1940, contain only one song from that year but songs from the entire 1930s as well as the earliest song on this disc, written in 1928.
This song, Danmark, nu blunder den lyse nat (Denmark, the pale summer night now dozes)(tr. 1), and many of the others, is rather simple, strophic and folk-like. They are often melodically agreeable and the majority of them are settings of nature poetry. Among the earliest songs Aftenlandskab (Evening landscape) (tr. 5), Sommernat (Summer night) (tr. 8) and Normandiet (Normandy) (tr. 9) are especially attractive. The humorous Tidligt forår (Early spring)(tr. 7) is perhaps even fresher and more personal.
Yet more personal are some of the 10 Songs to Texts by Nordic Poets. Køretur (A drive) (tr. 10) has similarities to Verdi’s Stornello, especially the rhythmic accompaniment. In the setting of Ragnar Jändel’s Det regnar (It rains) (tr. 13) one hears the rain incessantly in the piano, and though Gustaf Fröding’s Vinternatt (Winter night) (tr. 14) doesn’t specifically say so it seems that those who are moving through the winter night are in fact skiing; one can hear the ski-sticks being regularly put down. I am less convinced about the setting of Esaias Tegnér’s powerful Det eviga (The eternal) (tr. 12). This is one of the central poems in Swedish 19th century literature and I miss the nobility, the solemnity. Maybe a more substantial voice, preferably a bass-baritone, would have given added weight, but I doubt that it would have been enough. Likewise the setting of Nobel Prize Winner Pär Lagerkvist’s Det är vackrast när det skymmer (It is never more beautiful than at dusk) (tr. 15) feels bland when compared to Gunnar de Frumerie’s version.
The undoubtedly best songs on the disc are those composed in the mid-1940s for the American soprano Anne Brown, the first Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. When the war was over she visited Copenhagen to sing the role at Det Kongelige Teater. Since Otto Mortensen was repetiteur at the theatre he got to know her and she added some of the songs to her repertoire. The setting of Ogden Nash’s Adventures of Isabel (tr. 17) is really congenial in its shifting moods and burlesque humour. So is John Masefield’s grandiloquent Laugh and be merry (tr. 18) but like Det eviga it would have benefited from a grander voice. Jakob Naeslund Madsen does what he can but his lyric tenor is at least one size too small for the song and he has to resort to shouting and pressing the voice beyond its limits.
The songs From 7 Songs (1951) (trs. 19–22) are all excellent with an extra plus for Mirakler (tr. 21), which should be a perfect encore to any song recital with Nordic songs.
The last three songs were never issued in any collection but they belong to Mortensen’s best known and have been published in a lot of songbooks. They are again simple and natural, somewhat in the vein of Carl Nielsen’s best songs in the folksy mould.
The singers are truly committed in their singing. Signe Asmussen has a special flair for the lyrical and more inward pieces and is very sensitive to nuance though occasionally unsteady. Jakob Maeslund Madsen is best suited to the livelier songs and is expressive and enthusiastic, even though his tone tends to be strident. Christen Stubbe Teglbjaerg’s accompaniments cannot be faulted and the recorded sound is excellent.
Though Mortensen may not be in the same league as Nielsen, Grieg, Sibelius and Rangström, to mention four Nordic song composers of international stature, he has a great deal to offer and the English settings are masterly. A largely attractive acquaintance.