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Ludolf NIELSEN (1876-1939)
Symphony No. 1 (1902-03) [43.36]
From the Mountains - Symphonic Suite (1903-05) [27.49]
Danish PO/Frank Cramer
Rec. Aug 1997 May 1998, Frihedshallen Idraetshojskolen I Sønderborg. DDD
DACAPO 8.224093 [71.25]

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Ludolf NIELSEN (1876-1939)
Symphony No. 2 (1907-09) [39.03]
Romance for violin and orchestra (1908) [6.16]
Concert Overture in C major Op. 13 (1906) [13.41]
Anton Kontra (violin)
South Jutland SO/Frank Cramer
Rec. Aug 1996, Frihedshallen Idraetshojskolen I Sønderborg. DDD
DACAPO 8.224047 [59.33]

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Ludolf NIELSEN (1876-1939)
Symphony No. 3 (1913) [53.06]
Hjørtholm - tone picture (1923) [14.06]
Bamberg SO/Frank Cramer
rec 19-23 July 1999, Bamberg. DDD
DACAPO 8.224098 [67.20]

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Ludolf NIELSEN (1876-1939)
The Tower of Babel (1912-14) [35.02]
Forest Walk (1921-22) [27.57]
Danish National Radio SO and Choir/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. Danish Radio Concert Hall, 1999 DDD
DACAPO 8.224157 [63.05]

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Apart from the second symphony all these discs have been reviewed here before (details below). However seeing these discs on the shelf it occurred to me that an overview was in order

The three symphonies are conducted by Frank Cramer but in each case with a different orchestra. The Tower of Babel disc stands to one side from the symphony cycle and is conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes.

Melodic and tonal resource were clearly important to Ludolf Nielsen who traced his lineage from Grieg, early Carl Nielsen and a little from Alfvén. The line reaches back, at its earliest, to Raff and Schumann.

The First Symphony is discursive, rhapsodic, celebratory but without that last ounce of distinction in the themes. It bears comparison with Goldmark's Rustic Wedding symphony and Schumann's First Symphony The Spring. Nielsen's curvaceous themes bear some resemblance to early Carl Nielsen in his own First Symphony.

The charmingly pictorial In the Mountains is a symphonic suite. It is insistently craggy in The Castle Ruin, gracious like Grieg and playful yet lonely in The Shepherd. What stands out is the highly skilled orchestration; the acme of clarity in a romantically-inclined composer like Ludolf Nielsen. The finale has effervescence à la Karelia complete with optimistic birdsong and Scandinavian rural high spirits. All in all this is a highly entertaining and poetically imaginative suite.

The Danish Philharmonic is not a luxury instrument. Certainly the sound of the massed strings as rendered here is not a thing of beauty although the spirit of the work appears to come across well.

The Concert Overture belongs to the jaunty lighter woodland romance tradition of Fibich's A Night at Karlstein and Korngold's music for The Adventures of Robin Hood a tradition traceable back to Weber's mythic forest glades.

Speaking of lineage we need look no further than Saint-Saëns for the sweet fluency of the Romance for violin and orchestra. There is also more than a touch or two of Bruch about this writing. Melodically speaking this is a much more distinctive piece than the violin romances by Peterson-Berger and Stenhammar. It is most sweetly despatched by Anton Kontra.

The Second Symphony while seeming at first to be made of more concentrated fibre than the First soon reverts to jolly type. Here we have more of the chivalric pomp of some sylvan court - a genial magic that links with the writing of J.P.E. Hartmann and Gade. And so the theme continues through the four movements sometimes also relate to Mendelssohn and at one time and at others with woodland Bruckner. It is never short of restless elegant invention. The finale (lento into allegro vivace) skitters and flits in Midsummer Nights' Dream delight - sunny and warming music.

The Second Symphony has competition in the shape of the excellent Ole Schmidt's recording on CPO which has a more polished orchestra than Cramer.

The Third Symphony looks in one direction towards the Bruckner of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies and at the others towards the discursive Danish tradition represented by Louis Glass’s Third and Fifth Symphonies. It has especially by comparison with its two predecessors a grand romantic sweep. Nielsen returns to type at times with music of village celebration characteristic of the first two symphonies and the earlier orchestral suites. He also accomplishes music of wafer-like fragility approaching the romantic-expressionism of Zemlinsky’s Seejungfrau. The Symphony closes with a fine and noble theme that passingly reminds the listener of vintage Jerry Goldsmith!

Hjørtholm is the latest piece included on these four CDs. In Lyngby to the North of Copenhagen there had been a castle of this name standing on the shores of Lake Furesø. The castle stood for 300 years but was destroyed as were so many Catholic strongholds during the civil war of 1536-36. Although not a trace of the castle stood during Nielsen’s day. The piece is stark and tragic, inclined to darkness, rife with horn-calls. The tragedy is occasionally in brief remission for moments when the composer looks back on the festivities with which the great hall must have rung. Predominantly however this is a gloomy and powerful work. Its sense of place, fantasy and time-travel can be compared with John Ireland in Mai-Dun and The Forgotten Rite.

Frank Cramer who pilots the three symphonies and their suites and tone poems was born in Essen in 1954. Würzburg was his first musical directorship. He came under Horst Stein's influence in Hamburg as a budding conductor. He shows the same fastidious care as Stein to balance the contours of orchestral sound and is as responsive as Stein to changes in tempi and dynamics. Stein's few recordings include a 'Hall of Fame' Sibelius tone poem collection (Decca Weekend, Suisse Romande) are exemplars of spontaneity and the conductor's art. His En Saga and Pohjola's Daughter should be in the collection of any true Sibelian.

And so we come to the last and I think most impressive disc and a change of conductor. He is well known in Denmark and Sweden, the always imaginative and adventurous Owain Arwel Hughes. Having recorded all three of the symphonies Da Capo might have been tempted to take a long sabbatical. Not a bit of it. Instead they tackle the massy heights of Nielsen's setting of a poem by Gyrithe Lemche in whose home Nielsen stayed during country holidays. It was during such a holiday that the inspiration for Hjørtholm came to him. The Lemche poem Tower of Babel extols the perfection to be achieved through spiritual exaltation. The setting runs to 35 minutes and is for substantial forces including three soloists and a semi-chorus of four other voices alongside a very full choir all with grand orchestra.

While the First Symphony threshes about under the shadows of Schumann and Goldmark this work is far more distinctive and imposing. Baritone, Per Høyer is in darkly stern and secure voice - another Jörma Hynninen if ever I heard one. Tower of Babel has the flaming conviction and some of the sound-world of Rudolph Tobias's Jonah's Mission (on Bis and not to be missed), of Verdi's Requiem and of Havergal Brian's Siegeslied Symphony (on Marco Polo). With Rued Langgaard and Louis Glass, Nielsen had idealistic Millenarian visions as also, some years later, had John Ireland in These Things Shall Be. It is intriguing to hear this work alongside Langgaard's Music of the Spheres and Sinfonia Interna (also on Da Capo). When you come to the beginning of Part 2 of The Tower one can hear the clearest kinship with Langgaard woven with much the same line and light as Lange-Müller and Gade. You may also be put in mind of the outdoor songs and pastoral idylls of Ludolf’s namesake’s Springtime on Fyn (superbly done by Mögens Woldike on Regis). In the peroration the music develops a confident bell-swing. Extremely enjoyable!

From the second part of Babel it is an easy footstep to Forest Walk which is, at first, quite Straussian (the Danes have often been under the sway of influences from their southern neighbours). Pan's pipe (flute-articulated) wreathes these pages in secret smiles amid rustling undergrowth. The birdcalls and general Swinburnian ambience will be familiar to admirer's of Bax's unnumbered Symphony Spring Fire and more familiarly to anyone who knows Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe. ‘Pan by noon and Bacchus by night’, indeed. The other parallel is the central movement of Carl Nielsen's Sinfonia Espansiva. In the concluding section Towards Daybreak the music tilts towards the harmonic complexes of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Josef Suk's Wenceslas Meditation. This is a most surprising discovery and well worth your investment. The performances are utterly convincing.

The discs' many strengths are buttressed by Jens Cornelius's liner notes which uniquely satisfy the curiosity that this music is bound to engender. In the case of the Babel disc full texts and translations are given.

From the discursive symphonic suite style of the First Symphony to the earnest Brucknerian Third. From the gambolling Concert Overture to the stygian intensity of Hjørtholm. If you must have only one of these then try the strongest music which is without doubt the visionary The Tower of Babel and Swinburnian Forest Walk.


Rob Barnett

other reviews
Symphony 1
Rob Barnett

Symphony 3 John Phillips

Tower of Babel John Phillips   Rob Barnett

see also Quartets 2&3

 

 



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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