To my mind this is the least successful of the five CDs produced by Danacord to celebrate the achievements of 'fathers and sons' in Danish Music. And the strange thing is I am not altogether sure why I think this is the case.
All of these CDs have had good bits and not so good bits. Even the key players such as Gade and Langgaard have not always come up to scratch on these discs. Yet the previous four volumes have offered a challenge. Each disc has presented some excellent music that one is left feeling should be in the public domain. However I do not feel that this CD offers much which deserves to be revived except on a very occasional basis. On the other hand, it certainly does not call out to be ignored.
There is much good music here; many fine tunes and competent craftsmanship. However that little bit extra is missing. For example, the programme notes explicitly declare that Carl Adolf Helsted's Symphony in D is "conventional and does not have anything new to offer."
Now not having 'anything new to offer' need not be a sin. In fact too often people are keen to have 'novelty' for its own sake. For many years new works at the Proms were known as 'novelties.' In addition to this desire for the novel, many listeners will write off a piece of music simply because it is not ground-breaking or earth-shattering. The truth is more prosaic. Not every piece of music has to reach for the stars. Not every work that we listen to has to change lives or define a musical culture for the next hundred years. I enjoy The Mikado better than I do the Meistersinger. And who is to say that I am wrong or that my musical tastes are immature?
We are entitled to enjoy 'light' music and 'serious' music. Often people are moved by the magic of a Robert Farnon or Eric Coates when they would be oblivious to the complexities of Messiaen or Stravinsky.
Helsted, father and son are not to be despised for writing music that is good but not great. It is neither 'light' nor 'serious'. But my main complaint is that there is nothing special about it. Nothing to make me remember it. It does not move me.
Throughout this series of CDs one name seems to occur again and again in terms of influence; that of Niels W. Gade. This is especially the case with the music of Carl.
One of the comparisons made in the sleeve-notes is between the work by Gade - The Echoes of Ossian and the Overture in D by Helsted. The writer suggests that Gade influenced the present composer, but goes on to state that there is no doubt that the Gade's opus 1 'towers over Helsted's more modest overture.' Actually I enjoyed this work very much. Like much of this music one is conscious of the skill and expertise in the construction and instrumentation. It is full of good tunes and interesting material.
Helsted's Symphony did not fare well in his lifetime - in fact it was not performed until twenty or so years after it was composed. Helsted subjected it a major revision in 1862. There is much that is good in this work - yet nothing that really shines. Certainly there are a number of good tunes and the material is worked in a competent manner. There is a definite formal unity to the piece that is satisfying. Yet one feels that it is the kind of piece that any skilled composer could have trotted out at this period in musical history.
Carl Helsted had trained as a flautist, which skill he put to use in the Royal Danish Orchestra. He taught singing and as such he introduced a number of famous names onto the Copenhagen concert round. However, although he wrote a fair amount of music in his younger days, his compositional activity declined over the years. The sleeve notes suggest that this was due to an inferiority complex caused by the meteoric rise of Niels W Gade. Who is to say? One thing is certain, if Carl Helsted had continued to compose until his death in 1904 we would have been in possession some mature and effective works. We must judge these works as the compositions of a young man.
Gustav studied at the Copenhagen Conservatoire, although it was the organ and not composition that he majored in. He was appointed to the organ loft of the Jesus Church in Valby. Popularity of his recitals led to his appointment as organist at Copenhagen Cathedral. He taught keyboard and theory at the Conservatoire.
The programme notes suggest that Gustav found his career as a composer hard to further. He was considered by both critics and the public to be 'difficult and odd.' Although neither of the two works on this disc suffer from being 'far out', it is easy to see that contemporary audiences may have struggled with his erratic modulations and formal principles which may still be hard to pin down.
He does not seem to have had a huge catalogue of works to his credit. Yet he produced two symphonies, and opera called The Tocsin and a violin concerto. There were a number of lesser pieces for piano and chamber ensembles. It is safe to say that his music is virtually unknown outside Denmark. In fact it must be presumed that he is hardly a household name in the suburbs of Copenhagen!
The two works presented on this CD show a good degree of craftsmanship/ There is no doubt about that. He understands the orchestra and in particular the use of the violin and cello as solo instruments. The Romance was a genre made popular by Beethoven and Dvorak and, perhaps more relevant to a Danish composer that by Johan Svendsen. It is a charming piece worthy of the occasional revival.
The Cello Concerto is also worth listening to, although it will never join the pantheon of greats - Dvorak, Elgar et al. The work is quite short; not more than 22 minutes. Yet the piece moves through a variety of moods and modulations. Once again Gustav's ability at scoring for string solo is evident. It has perhaps too much material for its relatively slight length.
The last of the CDs in this excellent and informative series is no less well performed than the predecessors. Any negative comment on the musical content is not applicable to the realisation of these largely forgotten works. Both the cellist and the violinist take these pieces seriously and at face value. They play both the straightforward and the complex passages with skill, understanding and precision. The orchestra under Henrik Dam Thomsen does not let the series down either.
The programme notes are less fulsome; perhaps than some of the others in this series. I expect it is simply because there is less scholarship to go on. I have had to make extensive use of them to produce this review. However, the presentation of the entire CD is excellent and is a credit to Danacord. Long may they continue to explore the highways and byways of Danish music in such a professional and imaginative way.
If only there were more recording companies willing to take risks with unfamiliar music the musical world would become an even more interesting place.