Simple and sunny - is this really Carl Nielsen?
17 July 2015
Richard MorrisonTonight the Proms season opens with an exhilarating firecracker of late Romantic music:
Carl Nielsen's overture to his 1906 opera. Maskarade.
The choice is apt. This year marks the 50th anniversary of this supremely individual composer's birth. If the overture triggers your curiosity about the rest of the opera, this exemplary new studio recording is a must-have. Those who know Nielsen
only from turbulent symphonies such as the Inextinguishable
(or "Indistinguishable", as British musicians unfairly call it) will be surprised by the uncomplicated high spirits and broad comedy of Maskarade.
In its plot it resembles Strauss'sDie Fledermaus,
but in its delectable pastiches of folk dances and songs and its symbolic position in the musical heritage of its country it is more akin to Smetana's The Bartered Bride.
Nielsen, however, is a different sort of composer
, even the most light-fingered of two-steps is likely to have a tracery of sophisticated counterpoint around it and some ensembles are little masterpieces of polyphony as well as being rambunctious outpourings of the Danish soul.The story, from an 18th-century comedy by Ludvig Holberg
, has two young people falling in love at a masked ball, although their respective fathers have already plegded them to other people. Fortuitously, the "other people" turn out to be the lovers themselves. And, er, that's it - although the more pretentious cholars interpret the tale as an Enlightenment parable about the younger generation striving to break through oppressive social restrictions and be themselves.Where the opera falters
(and this may explain why stagings outside Denmark are still so rare) is in its pacing of scenes involving minor characters, who are generally allowed to be "humorously" lugubrious for far too long. Nielsen himself realised that Acts II and III needed revision, but never got round to it.Still, here's a cast
(led by Johan Reuter and Niels Jorgen Riis) whose singing brings the comedy to life under the expert baton of Micheal Schönwandt. Enjoy two hours of top-notch light music and brush up your Danish in the process.