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Patric Standford
Music & Vision, October 2009

Kayser may have been a more widely known name in twentieth century musical history had he not made a critical decision at the age of twenty-three to abandon a musical career, well founded as a student at the Royal Danish Academy, to journey to Rome and train for the priesthood. He returned to Denmark in 1949 and took up a post as priest at the Catholic Cathedral of St Ansgar in Copenhagen. He continued to compose, completing a third Symphony begun whilst in Rome, and devoting much time to religious works (a Christmas Oratorio and Te Deum, both for chorus and large orchestra) as well as a great many organ works. However, in 1964 he requested a release from his vows, began teaching at the Academy and eventually married. His standards as a teacher were high, and he applied similar scrutiny to his continuing compositional work and the many keyboard arrangements he made of major Danish symphonic works. His style recalls Nielsen in many ways, and his ingenious inventiveness continues to impress.

Symphony No 1 was written around 1938 when he was nineteen, and shows extraordinary technical mastery, both in its formal symphonic organisation (it is a concentrated single movement work of about sixteen minutes) and in its resourceful and challenging orchestration—not least in a colourfully vivacious ‘scherzo’ section.

Symphony No 4 seems to reverse the youthful optimism of the 1st by moving into a more introverted and searching mode. It is a work by a composer keenly aware that the time of its first performance (1966) is a period of radical musical changes, and—like Nielsen earlier—he is unsure of his possibly outmoded place in those adventurous times. Modernism created expectations in the world of contemporary arts and music that were opposed to his own ideals. The third movement of the 4th Symphony has something monumental about it like a cathedral, meditative, expansive and bold, but there is still a hint of vigorous demands being made in the scherzo.

Kayser continued to work up to his death in 2001, forever challenging, never allowing himself (or his students) an easy way out. An anecdote is worth quoting: a visitor who came to play Kayser’s four-hand arrangement of The Rite of Spring felt unable to meet the demands. ‘Cissy!’ said Kayser.

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, July 2009

“Carl Nielsen rose to Olympus, but sent Kayser down here,” is how one influential critic reacted to the debut of the Symphony No. 1, by Leif Kayser (1919–2001). Premiered when the composer was not yet 20, the work presaged a brilliant career for the young musician, who was also a distinguished conductor, pianist, and organist. So it made quite a stir when Kayser abruptly terminated all his musical responsibilities in 1942 and flew to Rome, training for the priesthood. Although he resumed both composition and performance after returning to Copenhagen in 1949, the musical landscape had begun to shift dramatically. The serialists were gaining ascendance, even in conservative Denmark, and the musical establishment over the ensuing years began to be far less sympathetic and even openly hostile to Kayser’s new works. He in turn grew defensive, and in 1966—two years after leaving the priesthood—declared in an interview before the premiere of his Fourth Symphony, “You must not expect it to be like what you usually understand by the music of our time. I have been so old-fashioned as to use music paper, and the instruments are also allowed to play.” The critics of the day were not kind.

The First Symphony is in four continuous movements. It makes use of Nielsen’s “progressive tonality,” but is less dissonant overall. It is a work brimming with justified self-confidence, most especially in the Largo cantabile movement, a slowly unwinding hymn set as a series of variations in two and three-part counterpoint. One of the dramatic high points is the way this ethereal piece is suddenly displaced by the pompous, off-kilter mock-march that forms the Scherzo. Throughout, the orchestral writing is distinctive, and the thematic content richly memorable.

There is no question upon hearing Kayser’s Symphony No. 4 that it continues the language present in his earliest symphonic essay. Neither, however, is it a dry, academic attempt to recapture old forms. There is great vitality and imagination in this work, cast in four expansive movements, of which the third, a magnificent Lento lasting here over 20 minutes, is the centerpiece. Rising to an impressive climax, it displays his emotional immediacy, brilliant orchestration, and lightly dissonant harmonic language to excellent advantage. Elsewhere, there’s a measured introductory movement that demonstrates Kayser’s contrapuntal prowess and sharp rhetorical logic, a breathless, ingenious Scherzo, and a lengthy, conflicted finale that incorporates motifs from the other movements before going out in a blaze of optimistic glory.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, May 2009

The First Symphony is a concise romantic work with a rising and surging insistence. The silvery perfection of his string writing recalls Respighi in the Concerto Gregoriano. The four movement Fourth Symphony was a long time in the making. The first movement is by turns sturdy and dignified and then lightly fugal. There is a racing Molto Vivace with memorable brass fanfares and quick joyous writing for the strings (tr.3 1:20). The last two movements are very substantial: 20:37 and 17:11 as against the first two: 8:40; 6:02. The Lento is a dark and serious affair shackled in soulful tones to the matte lower range of the orchestra. The finale includes many solo episodes and the music is couched in a pastoral contemplative style with some moments rather like Nielsen and Vaughan Williams especially at the start. These are punctuated by some wonderfully empowered hammer-impact chords redolent of Jon Leifs (at 4:20). Some of the surging writing for strings reminded me of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony and at 14:37 the cresting climaxes of the vintage Roy Harris symphonies. At the peak (16:10) it is as if Kayser is exultantly referencing Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. Thus Kayser’s final symphony written at the age of 47.

The recordings of both works are an object lesson in naturalism and immediacy - not always easy bedfellows.

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, May 2009

When Danish composer Leif Kayser (1919–2001) wrote his first symphony at age 19, he was enthusiastically received as promising talent. “Carl Nielsen rose to his Olympus, but sent Kayser down here”, was one critic’s reaction.

Kayser did, in fact, lead an active musical life as a composer, teacher, and organist. His musical studies began early, and at age 15 he enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. His First Symphony appeared two years later, just before he moved to Stockholm to study with Hilding Rosenberg. He finished his Second Symphony in 1940, and other works followed. Two years later, Kayser suspended most of his musical activities and traveled to Rome to study for the Catholic priesthood. In 1949, he returned to Denmark and took up the parish of St Ansgar’s Cathedral in Copenhagen. At the same time, he resumed his active life as a composer and completed his Third Symphony, some sacred works, and music for organ. In 1955 he took a leave to work with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Nine years later, he left the priesthood, married a few years after that, and joined the faculty of the Royal Danish Academy of Music. His last major work was the Fourth Symphony, which he completed in 1963. After that, he fell victim to the avant-garde that swept aside many tonal composers. Michael Garnaes’s excellent notes perhaps harshly call Kayser an “elitist reactionary” who “entrenched himself behind a defiant armor”. In any case, he never accepted atonality and serialism. But he never stopped composing, and he went on to write “practical” music (what Hindemith called gebrauchsmusik), as well as organ pieces and piano arrangements of orchestral works.

The imprints most apparent in Kayser’s music are Hindemith, Shostakovich, Bartók, Britten, and similar figures including even William Schuman. His short First Symphony (1936) bristles with the excitement of youthful inspiration, opening slowly with a portentous fanfare figure, then slowly unfolding. The composer described it as “adamant and insistent”. The slow movement is an inspired transformation of the opening figure into a long passage for violins and violas and later solo woodwinds. After it expands into a beautiful tutti, it is picked up by horns and trombones to create a mellow brass sound. The violins take over in Parsifal-like fashion before the movement ends quietly. The finale bursts with such ideas as a vigorous, Brittenesque string passage, a big brass theme that blends Shostakovich and Nielsen, clarion calls, and mocking and grotesque figures.

The much longer and more expansive Fourth Symphony begins with a marching figure in the strings and woodwinds. It is at first treated gently in a fugato, then it becomes more flowing without losing its march character and bits of Shostakovich and of Hindemithian dryness. In a most interesting passage, Kayser puts a touching violin line over a rocking accompaniment in the low woodwinds before adding a brooding theme in the low strings. In time, an insistent brass section picks up the rocking theme; tension builds and backs off before a quiet ending. The Molto Vivace begins with quick fanfares and string figures suggesting Britten before the main melody plays in octaves in the violas and cellos. After a brilliant trumpet solo, the midsection introduces a theme treated as a fugue before the recapitulation.

The 20-minute Lento’s depth, brooding, melodic turns, harmony, affinity for instruments’ low registers, and signature dropping major second are exceptional. The whole thing—particularly the string-drenched first section—reminds me of Shostakovich’s great slow movements without the Russian’s earthiness and tragedy. The Sibelian middle section unfolds with meditative woodwind solos accompanied by soft pacing in the strings. When the strings return and climb in register, the music brightens and turns more urgent, like forces gathering in the snow. Things become agitated with bright brass and string tremolos. The brass jab with repeated staccato accents, then join the strings in pounding out the dropping second. When the battlefield clears, a Shostakovich-like melody mourns in the high strings. After some counterpoint in the low strings and exchanges between oboe and English horn over a steady timpani, the movement ends in resignation.

The tour de force Finale opens with long, melodic woodwind cadenzas in a swaying 9/8, with the harp strumming as if accompanying a recitative. Later, Kayser will cleverly use that strumming as a transition to the cellos’ entrance. Melody spins from different instruments while the strumming passes around the orchestra, eventually evolving into a passage of William Schuman-like wind orchestration, block chords, and brass syncopations. After that, the melody spins out bitonally between flutes and bassoons. A ruminative viola cadenza initiates a transition to a darker atmosphere, greater volume, and more complexity in the 9/8 rhythm. The influence now is Hindemith (perhaps foreshadowed by the cadenza in the viola, Hindemith’s main instrument). When things calm down, a ruminative bassoon solo passes around the orchestra with the violins and harp marking the passing of time.

There are some nice effects here, with Schumanesque woodwind swirls, string chords, and mallet percussion. The celebratory ending alternates the swaying 9/8 melody with the “Schuman” figures and harmony, creating an orchestral sound like bitonal church bells. In July/August 2007, Mark Lehman reviewed Kayser’s Second and Third Symphonies on Dacapo without enthusiasm for the music or the performances. I have not heard it, but I recommend this one wholeheartedly. The performances make a strong case for two exciting, powerful works, and Dacapo’s sound delivers them in fine fashion.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2008

The life of Leif Kayser was one of vacillation, never sure whether he wanted to be a Catholic priest or a composer, finding out too late that you could not be both. Born in Denmark in 1919, he studied composition with Hilding Rosenberg and conducting with Tor Mann, and had made some headway in both. Then in 1942 he travelled to Rome and there pledged his life to the priesthood. That decision lasted for twenty years before marriage brought it to an end, and though he tried to return to composing, his style of writing was long past its sell-by date. Yet when he began both symphonies on this disc—1937 and 1945—he seemed to have the potential of becoming a major voice in Danish music. Listening to the disc I also vacillate between a feeling of modest admiration to the excitement at a new discovery. The First, written in one continuous movement divided into six sections and lasting around a quarter of an hour, is chugging along until we reach the third section marked Furioso when the work takes wing driving through to an exciting final Presto. The Fourth, by contrast, lasts for over fifty minutes and has four distinct movements, the second having a passing resemblance with William Walton. The third movement, Lento, occupies more than a third of the score, and is a sombre statement, the gloom lifted in a busy finale. The work was not performed until 1963 when its style was so out of fashion that the critics punished it. It was, at the age of 47, to be Kayser’s last major orchestral work. They are played by the Aalborg Symphony with their recently appointed principal conductor, Matthias Aeschbacher. Strangely they sound more comfortable in the large-scale and complex textures of the Fourth than the relative simplicity of the First.

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