Carl Nielsen: Cantatas
26 March 2010
Classical Lost and Found
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. However, as is the case with most CDs, one could wish for a more convincing choral sound, which is a bit on the edgy side.
As we've noted before, when it comes to digital recording, massed choruses seem to be the most difficult to faithfully reproduce. Generally speaking they come off much better in Super Audio, particularly when something like Ray Kimber's IsoMike is used.