> Thomas Jensen conducts Scandinavian Classics [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Thomas Jensen conducts Scandinavian Classics
Johan Peter Emilius HARTMANN (1805-1900)

Thrymskviden: Triumphal March of the Nordic Gods (1)
Niels GADE (1817-1890)

Echoes of Ossian, op. 1 (2)
Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911)

Romance, op. 26 (3)
Fini HENRIQUES (1867-1940)

Voelund the Smith: Prelude (4)
Peter Erasmus LANGE-MÜLLER (1850-1926)

Renaissance: Prelude (5)
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)

Little Suite for Strings, op. 1 (6), Helios, overture, op. 17 (7), The Mother: March (8), Saul and David: Act 2 Prelude (9)
Jan SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Finlandia, op. 26 (10), Valse triste, op. 44/1 (11), Valse lyrique, op. 98a (12)
Finn HØFFDING (1899-1997)

"It is perfectly true" – Symphonic Fantasy after Andersen (13)
Svend Erik TARP (1908-1994)

Mosaik – Miniature Suite (14)
Knudåge RIISAGER (1897-1974)

Little Overture for Strings (15), Concertino for Trumpet and Strings (16), Twelve by the Mail-coach, Ballet: January, May, August, October (17), Paradise of Fools – Suite (18), Two Beggar-pupils’ Songs (19), On the Occasion of – (20)
Carlo Andersen (violin) (3), George Eskdale (trumpet) (16), Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra (1, 2, 3, 18, 19, 20), Danish State Radio Orchestra (15, 16), Royal [Danish] Orchestra (6, 7, 8), Tivoli Concert Hall Orchestra (4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17)/Thomas Jensen
Recorded in Copenhagen, 8th September 1937 (18), 7th July 1938 (19, 20), August 31st 1939 (3), January 31st & February 22nd 1941 (6), Summer 1942 (1, 2, 7, 8), July 2nd 1942 (9, 10), 7th-8th September 1942 (5), 7th & 9th September 1942 (14), 24th-25th January 1945 (17), 23rd June 1947 (11, 13), 4th September 1947 (12), 7th September 1948 (4), 27th-28th January 1949 (15, 16)
DANACORD DACOCD 523-524 [2 CDs: 71’37"+72’05"]

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 called for.

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 round.

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 in it.

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 authenticity".

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 pieces.

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.

Christopher Howell

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