Carl Nielsen: Cantatas
06 September 2010
Denmark's "national composer," Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), was a prolific writer in many musical genres, including the cantata. In addition to the eight works that bear that classification, there are numerous other Nielsen pieces written in what one might think of as a cantata format. This CD release serves a valuable function, in that it presents the first commercial recordings ever made of three of these works, plus a recording of one of Nielsen's more obscure but previously recorded pieces, all in exceptional performances.
The Cantata for the Opening Ceremony of the National Exhibition in Aarhus was written in 1908-09. The National Exhibition was akin to a world's fair, and indeed, the Aarhus Exhibition, which gathered about 1,850 exhibitors, attracted more than half a million visitors. At the time he was offered the commission for this cantata, Nielsen was hard at work on the other cantata heard on this disc, so he initially declined. Later cajoled into reconsidering his decision, Nielsen agreed, but he ended up writing only about forty percent of the final music, handing the rest over to his student, Emilius Bangert. Though expertly crafted, this cantata lacks Nielsen's signature melodic and rhythmic creativity as heard in his symphonies and operas. It shows a more pedantic side of the composer, indicating a lack of deep commitment on his part. Bangert made a much more serious attempt to create great music, and in fact he achieved some shining moments. However, his gifts cannot compare with those of Nielsen at his best. Neither composer is helped by the rather grandiose libretto (by the playwright L. C. Nielsen), which has a florid, archaic character.
1922 marked a national celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of Copenhagen's Royal Danish Theatre and the works of Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), the author called "The Danish Molière," who is considered the founder of Danish theater. Considering the success of his opera Masquerade, based upon a Holberg play, Nielsen was a natural choice to compose a musical tribute to the great playwright. Unfortunately, the commissioning body allowed a mere fortnight (!) in which Nielsen was to write and prepare the work. Nielsen succeeded anyway, producing a short work for five soloists, chorus and orchestra. As is common in creative work forged in great haste, the Music for Hans Hartvig Seedorff Pedersen's Homage to Holberg merely skims the surface of any genuine appreciation of its topic. It features a quartet of Muses who mock the appearance of Holberg, only to be chastised by the chorus and solo baritone, who sing in praise of Holberg's literary prowess.
The third work on the disc is Ariel's Song from Nielsen's Music for Helge Rode's Prologue Shakespeare, a 1916 endeavor dedicated to the three-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death. This is the only work previously recorded. It is a brief, strophic song for tenor and orchestra that captures more of Nielsen's creative fire than the previous two works. It is a very appealing song and leaves one longing to hear more.
Da Capo has saved the strongest work for last - namely, the Cantata for the Annual University Convention. Nielsen received this commission in 1906 and just barely managed to complete it before the November 1908 Convention. Written to a libretto by the author and businessman Niels Møller, the cantata traces the advance of knowledge from primeval darkness through the heights of Danish learning in contemporary times. The intent was to create a work that would be sung every year at the convention. This intent was almost thwarted by the controversy sparked by certain sections of Møller's text. Conservatives excoriated the text's positive reflections on sun worship, its attack on the Church's attempts to suppress science, and its promotion of evolution. In words reminiscent of recent chapters in America's culture wars, one newspaper described the text as "Darwinistic evolutionary obscurantism." Eventually the text was modified, and here it is recorded in that later version. Nielsen's music, while full of pomp and ceremony, is thoroughly engaging. There is an absolutely ravishing duet for tenor and soprano and much fine writing for male chorus. This cantata is fun to hear, explaining its continued presence in Danish concert life.
All four works on this disc receive first-rate performances. Conductor Bo Holten commands his various and many forces with surety and enthusiasm. The choral singing of all three organizations is world-class. The primary soloists, soprano Ditte Højgaard Andersen, baritone Palle Knudsen and tenor Mathias Hedegaard, all favor a sweet-toned lyric quality that is exactly the correct tone in this repertoire.