I have recently written about the few records which
Thomas Jensen (1898-1963) made with the Aarhus Civic Orchestra, whose
fortunes he guided from its institution in 1935 till 1957 (Danacord
DACOCD 497). Jensen was also conductor of the Tivoli Concert Hall Orchestra
from 1936 to 1948 and recorded quite extensively with this and other
orchestras in Copenhagen. While the Aarhus repertoire was fairly international,
with just a few Danish pieces, the present double album is dedicated
to "Scandinavian Classics".
This title does beg a few questions. I always thought
that a classic was something of universal appeal that had withstood
the test of time, and had been universally accepted as a classic. With
two obvious exceptions, and a few semi-exceptions, if these discs had
been labelled "Scandinavian Rarities", it would have been
nearer the mark for most of us. But steady on; we know very well that
certain British works have a such solid place in our home repertoire
that we imagine they must be equally known elsewhere. Or that, if played
elsewhere, they would prove to have the same appeal that they have for
us. And yet this is not so. Remember that in Italy Elgar is still
just a minor composer who wrote a piece called "Salut d’amour",
and playing an Elgar Symphony to the average Italian music-lover won’t
make him repent in sack-cloth and ashes, for the music just doesn’t
seem to be intended for Italian ears. I have no idea if Riisager, for
instance, is a "classic" figure like that in his home country.
All I can do is listen and try to decide whether he deserves
to be so, whether at home or abroad.
Well, the Hartmann March certainly doesn’t, for this
is the sort of instant ceremonial music that could have been written
by anybody who had studied enough to put the notes on paper. But the
Gade sounds here to rank pretty high among romantic overtures. I’ve
enjoyed some Gade Symphonies well enough in the past but this is the
first time I’ve actually been entranced and absorbed by this composer.
Once considered sub-Mendelssohnian and nothing more, his music at times
assumes bardic qualities which seem definitely Scandinavian. But this
Scandinavian quality usually seems to be just peeping through his presentable
Leipzig clothes. "Echoes of Ossian", on the other hand, maintains
a legendary, far-off tone throughout. That it makes such an effect is
in no small measure due to Jensen’s ability to bring out those qualities
which are latent in it.
Again, I have enjoyed the Svendsen Symphonies and some
of his other works, but this Romance touches a deeper note, or at any
rate it does so here. Carlo Andersen is a very pure-toned violinist
and the orchestra breathes with him; this
is a collaboration which reminded me of Suk and Ančerl in Dvořák,
and that is high praise indeed.
Back to noisy gestures for Fini Henriques’s Prelude,
I’m afraid and the Lange-Müller is better only in that it is more
varied. Jensen conducts both of these with panache and warmth where
And so to Nielsen.
Jensen not only studied harmony with Nielsen, he also
played many of his symphonies under him as a young orchestral cellist.
Nielsen’s daughters always maintained that of all conductors who performed
Nielsen’s works, only Jensen came close to matching their father’s own
performances. Other Danish musicians have testified that he had a very
precise memory for Nielsen’s own tempi. In due course I hope to be able
to comment on some of his performances of major works (Danacord’s "Carl
Nielsen Collection" includes Symphonies 3, 4, and 6, as well as
much else; Decca recordings of nos. 1, 2 and 5, from 1952, 1947 and
1954, have been put out by Dutton Laboratories, while a version of no.
6 once on World Record Club seems not to have reappeared yet, so a complete
cycle can actually be pieced together).
Turning to the pieces on the present disc, the first
thing that strikes you in comparison with the 1956 live performance
by another "historical" Danish conductor, Erik Tuxen, on Danacord
DACOCD 354-6, and this even before actually putting the discs on, is
that Jensen takes 3’15" over the Praeludium compared with Tuxen’s
2’38". And in fact Jensen conjures up a bleak and brooding atmosphere
whereas Tuxen drives the music on more urgently, unleashing the full
power of the orchestra dangerously early, though with impressive passion.
Timings are practically the same for the Intermezzo, but Jensen, with
more stabbing accents in the context of rather more hushed playing,
creates a sense of mystery and unease which Tuxen’s more flowing approach
does not attempt. The virtually identical timings for the Finale disguise
the fact that Tuxen is considerably more urgent in the introduction
while Jensen is more fleet of foot when the movement proper gets going.
The introduction under Tuxen certainly is impressive; Jensen, by holding
back, creates a sense of latent power but it is possible to feel that
he holds back too long and never does deliver. The trouble is, the recordings
have characteristics which exaggerate and exacerbate those of the performances
themselves, that of Jensen being at a low dynamic level and with severe
dynamic compression. In terms of frequency response the Tuxen is no
better, but it is closer and tends to overload, creating a superficially
more exciting effect. I wonder how our reactions to the performances
would change if the recording characteristics had been the other way
The same Danacord set also has a Tuxen performance
of Helios, again live from 1956, but not from the same concert. This
time the sound is more distanced and in fact the recordings sound remarkably
similar – so much for 14 years’ technological progress. The orchestral
playing under Jensen, particularly the horns, is not always secure,
but the live Tuxen is less so still. What can be heard is that both
conductors shape the long opening build-up from silence, and the final
winding down, with equal mastery, but Jensen is again fleeter of foot
when the Allegro starts, and avoids too much relaxation for the lyrical
themes. These are small differences, but the result is that Jensen has
you marvelling at what a modern score this is for 1903, with its almost
Ivesian bringing together of disparate elements, while Tuxen, by easing
around the transitions, finds a more traditionally romantic character
The March from "The Mother" is not important
Nielsen and I began by thinking it no better than the Hartmann piece
which opened the disc, but in the middle section it does show that a
great composer, even at half steam, will reveal something of himself.
The first CD closes with a noble and powerful reading of the Prelude
to Act 2 of Saul and David.
As well as playing under Nielsen, Jensen was also in
the orchestra when Sibelius conducted some of his Symphonies (for the
last time) and shorter pieces in Copenhagen in 1924 and 1926. Also in
this case, Danish musicians have testified that he maintained a very
clear memory of Sibelius’s own tempi and style of performance. Arne
Helman’s notes tell us that recordings by Jensen of all Sibelius’s Symphonies,
dating from his period as conductor of the Danish Radio Orchestra, exist
in the Danish Radio archives, but cannot be published for copyright
reasons (I don’t know about Symphonies, but he recorded the Four Legends
and some shorter pieces for Decca in the 1950s). Tantalisingly, Helman
tells us that only Kajanus’s recordings "have a similar tang of
If "Finlandia" is anything to go by, I can
well believe it. It is not so much a matter of certain details, such
as some shorter-than-usual brass chords near the beginning, which Jensen
may have picked up from Sibelius, but that all the tempi changes from
the brooding opening through to the unsanctimoniously played "big
tune" seem to derive organically from one another. I thought I
had become resistant to "Finlandia", but not as played here.
Jensen recorded the piece again for Decca in the 1950s, a version I
have not heard.
Similarly "Valse triste" is haunting as few
since, not by any special point-making, just by playing everything that
is written and then presenting it as in a dream-like trance. If Jensen
cannot do much for "Valse lyrique", then this shows that "Finlandia"
and "Valse triste", scoff as we will, are great music in their
way while "Valse lyrique" really is only an agreeable trinket.
The remainder of the second CD is dedicated to Danish
composers of the generation following Nielsen. Much of it is inspired
by Hans Christian Andersen, and even when it is not specifically so
his spirit seems not far away. It is not easy, on such short samples,
to get any larger view of these composers and their objectives; it is
listener-friendly, balletic music inhabiting a zone somewhere between
Constant Lambert and Jacques Ibert.
Finn Høffding’s spirited orchestral romp gets
a lively response from orchestra and conductor. There was a piece by
Tarp in the Aarhus album and I commented on its haunting atmosphere.
Here he is writing very simply in a perky style derived from Stravinsky’s
orchestral Suites (the "Tempo di valse" gives the game away!).
And yet it is all very neatly turned. If you look at titles like "The
old violin" or "The Bagpipe", with timings such as 0’57"
and 0’55", you’d think that anyone could keep a piece of the kind
going for that long, yet he usually finds something piquant and distinctive.
Represented as he is by several pieces, Riisager emerges
rather more as a personality. I thought the "Little Overture"
little more than neatly turned neo-baroque but trumpeters should surely
be grateful for such a well-made Concertino, particularly attractive
in the "Andantino" where the instrument is muted and heard
against Poulenc-like scrunchy chords (Riisager was friendly with "Les
Six"). And what a joy to hear something from the splendid George
Eskdale, Adolf Busch’s chosen trumpeter for his Brandenburgs. His instrument
is caught very well in spite of the age of the recording.
It was with "Twelve by the Mail-coach" that
I became convinced that Riisager really has something of his own to
offer, particularly the second movement, "May". He has the
knack of finding near-corny themes that nonetheless avoid the obvious,
and dressing them up in entertaining orchestral garb. Trumpeters who
enjoyed the Concertino and want more will find two of the movements
from "Paradise of Fools" equal fun and perhaps more memorable
still. If "Mail-coach" and "Paradise" are still
played in Denmark with enough frequency to pass as "classics"
I’d say they deserve it.
The disc closes with some brief and resourceful pieces
based on folk-tunes. I am still mulling over why the tune of "Paul
and his chickens" was so familiar to me. By this time I was beginning
to feel that there were too many brilliant, jokey pieces one after another.
However, this is not really Riisager’s fault but that of the programming,
no doubt dictated by what was available. If Riisager also wrote music
in a more serious vein it would be interesting to have a well-rounded
CD portrait of him in modern sound. It’s a pity Jensen isn’t around
to conduct it, for he is as admirable in witty music as in big atmospheric
Scandinavian classics? In absolute terms probably only
"Helios" is that. But I thoroughly enjoyed making further
acquaintance with Thomas Jensen and with most of the music. Another
peep at Danish musical history which proves to have plenty to offer
to the rest of us as well.