Jørgen Jersild: Chamber Music
01 February 2014
International Record Review
Michael RoundHow many Danish composers can we name, besides Nielsen?
Quite a few, I imagine, and mostly forward-looking: geographical proximity to the rest of Europe, plus the compactness of the country itself, has lent them considerable headway over their more remote and sparsely populated larger Scandinavian neighbours in the matters of absorption and discussion of new musical trends.
Vagn Holmboe and the prolific Niels Viggo Bentzon spring readily to mind, followed perhaps by Knudåge Riisager, Svend Erik Tarp and Rued Langgaard; before them Grieg' s friend Niels Gade and (German-born but later a Danish citizen) Friedrich Kuhlau, composer of all those easy piano pieces; further back still, J. P. E. Hartmann; and, bringing us right up to date, Per Nørgård and Poul Ruders. Jørgen Jersild (1913-2004) is probably less well known, certainly outside his homeland. This disc, devoted to him, lets us find out how he fits in.
Born into a musical family, Jersild received the best of local training and encouragement: possibly the single event most helpful to his composing career was a meeting with Albert Roussel during the latter's visit to Copenhagen in 1935, a visit followed up by three months of study with him in Paris the following spring. Thereafter Jersild composed fitfully - and always carefully during a largely academic and administrative career. His output was not large, and his instrumental works tend to include just one example of each genre: the sole string quartet, wind quintet and piano piece included on this disc, one concerto (for harp, a favourite instrument), one organ Fantasia. Against this must be set a body of choral work (some of it available on CD) and much music for the theatre.
Study with Roussel gave Jersild a flair for detailed textures and a mastery of instrumental writing that gained him a reputation as the 'Frenchman' of Danish music. His woodwind writing is particularly adroit, and I would urge newcomers to start listening with this disc's enticingly titled quintet dating from 1947, Music-Making in the Forest. This was new to me, but may be better known to wind quintet players; its virtuoso writing approaches the manic. Its three movements all end in, or on, C, but most of the work is practically atonal. Despite this and a boon perhaps to music-appreciation lecturers anxious to stretch their students' ears beyond tonality - it exudes optimism and sustained good humour. The MidtVest players are dazzling particularly hornist Neil Page - even outshining the Danish Radio SO Quintet (coupled with Nielsen, Otto Mortensen and Henning Weelejus) on a rival Dacapo download. Busy textures and hyperactivity pervade the next work on the disc, the Trois pieces en concert of 1945 for solo piano. Jersild claimed Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin as a model, and the intricacy of the writing has been said to derive from Couperin and Domenico Scarlatti. The outer movements are a 'Tambourin' and 'Farandole', but more impressive is the central 'Romanesque', a set of variations on a mock-antique theme containing all the ingredients of a selfcontained competition test piece probably much played (whether in competition or no) by Danish pianists. Martin Qvist Hansen's performance here is electrifying: Folmer Jensen's rival performance is available on 'Three Great Danish Pioneer Pianists', a twodisc Danacord compilation mixing modern Danish and standard piano classics.
The other two works here receive their world premiere recordings. The 1934 Quartet for mixed strings and wood wind pre-dates Jersild's studies with Roussel; Claus Røllum-Larsen's booklet note considers it charitably, to me - as 'coloured by the sober, objective style that was prevalent in Danish music at the beginning of the 1930s'. After three hearings, the description 'note-spinning' comes inescapably to my mind.
The String Quartet dates from much later (1980) and - for reasons of tone contrast when listening straight through - is placed first on the disc. I would nevertheless save it till last, for in comparison with the eartickling fancies of the two central works this strikes me as half an hour under grey skies, its expressionist semitonal harmonies being only briefly alleviated by pallid sunshine in the F majorish episode from 4'32 " in the first movement, or enlivened elsewhere by an intermittent, sometimes explosive 3+3+2 rhythm. Of this work's serious intent there can be no doubt; equally undoubtedly, it reveals its beauties only slowly. The performance is heartfelt, and all its composer could have desired - I still feel no surprise that it has not been recorded until now. The wind quintet and piano pieces alone, however, make this disc an excellent purchase, even at full price.