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Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, March 2010

Just as Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) “completists” thought they had all of the great Danish composer's major works on disc, here's a new one with three world première (WP) recordings! These include two festive cantatas as well as some incidental music for a play honoring Dano-Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754).

The CD begins with a cantata (WP) that was commissioned for the opening ceremony of a 1909 national trade exhibition in Aarhus, Denmark. At almost half an hour, this is a major vocal work, and because of time constraints Nielsen delegated parts of it to his young student Emilius Bangert (1883-1962). In seven sections, the first, fifth and sixth were written by Nielsen, the second, third and seventh, Bangert, and both collaborated on the fourth. But there's a stylistic consistency throughout that would seem to indicate Carl carefully coordinated the overall effort.

The two opening sections for chorus and soprano are joyous invocations of spring and an abundant harvest (Danish, German and English texts for everything are included in the informative album notes). There are some of those catchy Nielsenesque modulations [track-1, beginning at 01:13], as well as a couple of phrases that could almost be out of Sir Arthur Sullivan [track-1, beginning at 02:13]. The first section would normally conclude with an extended unaccompanied spoken recitation, but rather than breaking up the musical continuity of the piece, the producers have wisely opted to put it at the end of the disc as an appendix [track-16].

In the third section the chorus lauds Denmark’s Jutland peninsula and its city of Aarhus. The fourth for accompanied reciter, chorus, soprano and bass is the longest, and an attractive nationalistic paean with operatic overtones. The last three, all of which are choral and in praise of Denmark, conclude this vocal rarity with bright hopes for the future.

The next selection is some incidental music (WP) Nielsen composed for Hans Hartvig Seedorff Pedersen's (1892-1986) 1923 play Homage to Holberg. Pedersen wrote this to honor the two hundredth anniversary of Holberg's The Political Tinker (1722), which was the first play in the Danish language. Although composed just a year after his monumental fifth symphony (1921-22), the three numbers Nielsen came up with here are stylistically much closer to his opera Masquerade of 1906. That may have been by design, considering the latter is based on Holberg's 1724 play of the same name.

The opening number begins with a fanfare that anticipates Sir William Walton's prelude for Lawrence Olivier's film Richard III (1955). Four muses then sing a charming rather humorous ensemble piece with those rhythmic twitches so typical of Nielsen. The next section for chorus and baritone is a bit more serious, but laced with amusing musical references to a barking dog [track-9 at 02:27]. The chorus dominates the chorale-like last number, bringing things to a reverential close.

Next we have an excerpt from Nielsen's incidental music to Helge Rode's (1870-1923) prologue for a 1916 production of Hamlet honoring the third centenary of Shakespeare's death. Entitled "Ariel's Song," it's a lovely aria for tenor and orchestra characterized by Scandinavian demureness.

Another cantata (WP) dating from 1908 follows. This was for the annual university commemoration, and has a text by Niels Moller (1859-1941), who was in the insurance business, but wrote and taught part-time. It's in four sections and was to be performed in the university auditorium, which placed limitations on the size of the orchestra. Accordingly Nielsen opted for just strings with a few winds and a piano.

In four sections, the opening one begins quietly, quickly picking up momentum. A male chorus soon enters followed by a tenor and soprano singing a florid duet about humanity's emergence from primeval darkness into light. The next section, which is for bass and male choir, dramatically outlines the intellectual progress of mankind. The third for soprano, tenor and bass supported by the chorus, eulogizes man’s pursuit of knowledge. The concluding chorus encourages the students in attendance to go forth and use what they've learned to make the world a better place in which to live.

The substantial combined forces of the Danish National Opera Chorus plus the Vox Aros Male and Aarhus Cathedral Choirs, along with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra under conductor Bo Holten are perfectly suited to this celebratory music. Together with soprano Ditte Hojgaard Andersen, tenor Mathias Hedegaard, and bass-baritone Palle Knoudsen, all of whom are in fine voice, they give us performances with a nationalistic fervor perfectly suited to these scores. Mention should also be made of reciter Jens Albinus, who delivers the spoken parts with great authority.

These recordings were done in the superb acoustic of the Aarhus Concert Hall. They are excellent from the soundstage standpoint with just the right amount of spread and depth for the massive forces involved. The instrumental timbre is quite natural sounding, and the soloists perfectly captured and balanced against what at times becomes a sonic tidal wave.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, February 2010

Occasional music has had a bad press. That composers and their families must survive through commissions is something which at one level people find difficult to forgive. Surely inspiration should come unbidden ... unbought. Yet many commissioned works have survived and transcended such origins. In any event are we saying that those composers granted pensions by enlightened Scandinavian governments have produced nothing of worth from the day when the pension is conferred?

In the decades flanking the transition between the 19th and 20th centuries cantatas commissioned by universities, unions, states and foundations were far from uncommon. Their legacy is scattered through the catalogues including those of Sibelius, Alfvén and Nielsen. They were for me the complete unknown—infuriatingly tantalising—denizens of the worklists at the back of the 1960s Sibelius books by Robert Layton and Harold Johnson. Would we ever get to hear them? So far as Sibelius is concerned it was only through the efforts of Ondine and then more comprehensively through the Bis Sibelius Edition that these often sturdy and far from vapid or unworthy pieces have become a listening reality.

The long list of such works from Nielsen have been slower in achieving recordings but this is now happening. This is the first disc to make systematic inroads into these neglected or derided works.

The very satisfying half hour cantata for the Opening Ceremony of the 1909 Aarhus National Exhibition is in seven sections. It ended up being written partly by Nielsen and partly by Emilius Bangert. We hear on this disc only the seven sections penned by Nielsen. This is grandiloquent music with a confident Egmont-like flourish and much brassy triumph and exaltation. This is Nielsen in public celebratory mode. While going through some very enjoyable hymnlike patriotic motions it does not stray far from the Gaudeamus Igitur celebratory mode. The pleasure is enhanced by some wonderfully well-rehearsed singing—burnished and superbly drilled.

The brief Ludvig Holberg Homage dates from 1923. It’s a work in which the full-on Nielsen can be heard. The initial fanfares have a mature rawness and The Muses movement touches on the idiom of Fynsk Forar as well as that of the Fifth Symphony. The seraphically undulating final Chorus shows less originality than The Muses but has a grand Germanic weightiness of tone.

Ariel’s Song is one of Nielsen’s productions for the 1916 triple centenary of the birth of Shakespeare. The sweetly troubadoured tenor line, grace melody and chiming horn choir complete this tender picture.

The 1908 Cantata for the Annual University Commemoration runs to almost 25 minutes. It is in four sections of which the first is distinguished by a prominent and rhythmically emphatic piano part. The third part for me recalls the dawn intimations to be heard in the violin parts of Nielsen’s Helios overture.

The disc ends eccentrically with a couple of minutes of Jens Albinus reciting with fervour, without any instrumental accompaniment, the oratorical text from 1909 Aarhus work.

The words and translations are laid out sensibly in the booklet with Knud Ketting’s typically excellent liner-note.

Sturdy celebratory music spliced with modest amounts of Nielsen’s freshness and originality. Will satisfy but do not expect Nielsen the great revolutionary. Nielsen the craftsman is the order of the day.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2009

Three world premiere recordings of cantatas by Carl Nielsen would appear to be a major discovery, but they are not all that they may seem to be. We have arrived at the early years of the 20th century by which time he was Denmark’s leading composer, though his international reputation did not recognized him in the field of choral music, and he bluntly turned down the request to write a cantata for the 1909 National Exhibition in Aarhus. He was later persuaded to change his mind on the understanding he could coopt his pupil Emilius Bangert who would compose half of the work. The result was not a cantata in the accepted term, but a series of movements so arranged as to fit around other unconnected events at the opening ceremony, such as the local Mayor’s long speech. Nielsen dutifully obliged obviously thinking it would never be heard again. The disc’s other work of substance, the Cantata for the annual university commemoration, was a much more important commission, and he would have expected it to gain regular performance. You know from the first few bars that Nielsen wanted to impress, the thematic material innovative, engaging and rhythmically attractive. For three soloists, choir and chamber orchestra, its four movements play for almost twenty-five minutes. Yet the people who commissioned it disowned it after the first performance. The remainder of the release is given to Ariel’s Song from Nielsen’s incidental music to mark the 1916 anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and music for Pedersen’s Homage to Holberg, a playlet to honour the great Danish dramatist, Ludvig Holberg. It is by far the most important and charming part of the disc, and well worth hearing as a major Nielsen score. Whatever the question marks over content, the good people of Aarhus perform with considerable commitment and enthusiasm, while the recorded sound is impeccable and invaluable for Nielsen enthusiasts.

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