Carl Nielsen: Kantater
09 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.