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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Carl Nielsen’s Prophet in Sweden
CD 1 [71:32]
Symphony No. 1 (1891-2) [32:21]
Saga-Drøm (1907-8) [11:08]
Symphony No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1901-2) [27:45]
CD 2 [70:45]
Symphony No. 3 Sinfonia Espansiva (1910-1) [35:30]
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable (1914-6) [35:05]
CD 3 [78:26]
Symphony No. 6 Sinfonia Semplice (1924-5) [33:02]
Oriental Festival March, from Aladdin (1918-9) [3:02]
Saul and DavidOpera in Four Acts (1898-1901): start [41:41]
CD 4 [74:25]
Saul and David – Opera in Four Acts (1898-1901): conclusion [74:25]
Royal Stockholm Symphony Orchestra/Tor Mann
Maria Ribbing (sop), Claes Göran Stenhammer (bass-bar) (Sym. 3)
Sigurd Björling (bass); Lars Billengren (ten); Marianne Öhrn (sop); Uno Ebrelius (ten); Joel Berglund (bass); Bo Lundborg (bar); Hans Nerbe (bar); Barbro Ericson (alt); Inga-Lill Sannfrid (sop); Tora Teje (reciter); Swedish Radio Choir (Saul and David)
rec. Royal Academy of Music, Stockholm, 15 February 1944 (Sym. 2); Concert Hall, Stockholm, 19 February 1947 and 5 March 1954 (Sym. 4), 27 January 1948 (Sym. 3), 20 November 1949 (Sym. 6), 4 February 1953 (March), 16-17 September 1957 (Saul), 11 September 1958 (Sym. 1), 11 September 1961 (Saga)
DANACORD DACOCD 627-630 [4 CDs: 71:32 + 70:45 + 78:26 + 74:25]

 


Even today, Nielsen’s is hardly a household name. Back in the early 1960s, the nearest I’d come to it was the “Nielson’s Ice Cream” van that, round my way, competed with “Mr. Rossi” in the threepenny cornet stakes. I first came across Carl Nielsen’s music when Barbirolli and the Hallé performed the Fourth Symphony at a 1963 Bradford concert. I wasn’t alone – it seemed that nobody in the audience had even heard of Nielsen and, if the post-concert chit-chat was anything to go by, most folk were wishing it had stayed that way. Not me though; I was completely bowled over – “it blew my mind” was not yet common currency – and the very next day I bought the Barbirolli recording.

This in itself was something of a rarity for, apart from a few from pioneers such as Tuxen and Jensen, recordings of Nielsen were pretty thin on the ground. Prior to the 1960s, Nielsen was generally even more unappreciated than Sibelius – and this sets the context of the present issue. In the decade following the Great War, the orchestral cellist Tor Mann (1894-1974) became increasingly appalled by Nielsen’s inept conducting, but proportionately inflamed with enthusiasm for the music. Consequently, as the RSPO’s radio musical director in the 1940s and 1950s, alongside the music of fellow Swedes such as Berwald and Stenhammar, he championed that of the great Dane – and “bully for him,” I say.

History, though, pulled a rather dirty trick on him. The activities of “Nielsen’s prophet in Sweden”, whilst wholly admirable, were also entirely parochial. Apparently, nothing ever penetrated beyond Sweden’s borders, at least partly because Mann’s only recordings were made solely for the convenience of Swedish radio broadcasts. Those familiar with the riches amassed over the years by broadcasting organisations in general may well exclaim, “But that’s not so bad – we still have those, don’t we?” Well, back then Swedish Radio’s recording policy was, “Use it then, unless it’s by a Swedish composer, bin it”. This ridiculous rule was rigidly enforced by myopic management, though mistakes were occasionally made.

These four CDs contain all that survives, mostly, though not exclusively, through such “mistakes”. It’s just done nicely enough to make you weep. We can infer from the note by Carl-Gunnar Åhlén, the restoration engineer, that nothing survived unscathed. The good news is that the First Symphony, Saul and David, and the Oriental Festival March were recorded on professional-standard (high-speed) tapes. The rest, however, is all bad news. At some juncture, these good recordings were transferred – presumably for reasons of “economy” – onto much poorer-quality, low-speed tapes. Paradoxically, this is fortunate – according to the rule, they should simply have been wiped!

The Second Symphony seemed to fare better, as it was made on wax masters, subsequently transferred to metals. However, at bar 102 of the finale, a mechanical failure put paid to the rest of the recording. The remaining symphonies were captured on acetates. An inherently grotty medium, acetate is exceedingly crackly and preserves the noise of the cutting-head, which typically sounds somewhat like a cat trapped in the groove.

The last side of the Fourth Symphony turned out to be completely unplayable. However, by a stroke of sheer good fortune, there came to light an off-air recording of a later (1954) performance, from which it was feasible to patch in a conclusion. Saga-Drøm very nearly didn’t make it at all. In 1961 the recording was indeed wiped – and what we have here is another off-air recording, poor in quality but nevertheless better than nothing. In passing, I am amused at how quickly necessity transforms an “illegal activity” into a “public service”!

Don’t be taken in by the inlay card’s claim that these recordings “are now revived with a surprisingly good sound quality.” Who is “surprised”? It can’t be you or I. How good is “good”? We do not know. In both cases, we have no primary standard against which to measure – these aren’t from previously available commercial recordings but are effectively “brand-new” issues. I don’t think this is deliberate wool-pulling – in all likelihood it’s the production team’s own reaction to the outcome of a long, hard slog. If so, I shudder to think what some of the originals must have sounded like.

Anyway, I can convey some idea of the sound quality by adopting an admittedly rather rough secondary standard. I’ll compare these recordings with the general quality of a typical historical restoration – broadly equivalent to a decent monaural LP pressing. However, you should not take my comments as adversely critical in the normal sense of “this could have been done better”. By rights, these recordings should not have survived – I’m just trying to describe the outcome of what seems increasingly to be an heroic rescue mission.

The earliest is that of the Second Symphony. Though for the most part not too obtrusive, the expected background hiss is rather whooshy with some sputtering. Louder passages tend to sound over-bright and harsh. Whilst pretty solid, the bass feels a bit lumpy and, notably in the second movement, the strings seem somewhat pallid. There being no off-air cavalry to ride to the rescue, when the unplayable conclusion of the original is reached, the remastered edition has no option but to fade out discreetly, at which point you might want to reach for a box of tissues.

In the quieter parts of the Fourth Symphony, the “trapped cat” can be heard tracking the signal, as a faint, violin-like mewling. Occasional spurts of sputtering occur, notably during climactic builds-up. Otherwise and surprisingly, this sounds better than the Second, with a reasonable dynamic range, firmer and cleaner bass, and a smooth overall sound that harshens only moderately in climaxes. The switch to the off-air tape is audible through a fairly obvious “fading up” of tape hiss as the coda starts, although it is quickly masked by the music’s crescendo. The comparatively desiccated tape sound has more glare on top, but at least the work is “complete”.

If there’s a “trapped cat” anywhere in the Third, I haven’t spotted it yet! Instead, there is just a very faint, irregular sputtering. Towards the end of the first movement, and running into the second, I could hear some amplitude flutter. Otherwise this pips the Fourth, coming across as the smoothest and richest sound thus far – though it must be said that some of the richness will be due to Nielsen’s scoring.

Although it is the most recent acetate, the Sixth Symphony suffers the worst residual noise. Åhlén probably left in the sound of fat frying, rather than jeopardise the prominent tinkly percussion. The “trapped cat” also puts in an appearance, notably as a slow “morse code” punctuating the finale’s waltz music. The upper strings can sound glassy when playing loudly, and the middle strings “grey” when playing softly, suggesting a mid-frequency deficiency. However, other than some mild climactic congestion, distortion is not really a problem.

Did this Oriental Festival March really start out on professional-quality tape? If so, then the transfer to low-speed tape must have been right royally botched,. Even after Åhlén’s ministrations, it sounds uneven, mushy, congested, wobbly and riddled with dropouts and “knots”. In short, it’s “dog-rough”, but enough of the music penetrates to convince me that, in the flesh, this must have been absolutely glorious. Time to get out those tissues again.

Occupying the opposite pole is Saul and David, which offers the best sound of the entire set. This is just as well, as it occupies over 40% of the playing time! Both noise and distortion are low and well-behaved, the sound is open and full, and – apart from quibbles concerning details of relative balance – everyone’s contributions are clearly audible. This is well up to that “secondary standard”.

Really, the First Symphony, recorded a year after Saul and David, should have been just as good. It isn’t. Although set against a warm ambience, with a good perspective depth and minimal noise, its otherwise smooth, detailed sound is marred in loud passages by some slight coarsening and treble stridency. Nevertheless, seasoned historical recordings fans – along with sundry others – should derive unreserved enjoyment out of this one.

By comparison, the sound of the off-air recording of Saga-Drøm is enjoyable only if you work at it. We should bear in mind that, in 1961, “domestic equipment” meant things like AM radios and slow-speed, open-reel tape recorders. I remember that the only way I could “connect” the said bits of kit was to wedge the recorder’s microphone against the radio’s loudspeaker!

At the start, the sound feels “corkscrewed”, imparting a strange, un-real quality to the strings. As the background is almost preternaturally quiet, and sometimes I detect momentary dips in the dynamic level, I wonder whether the noise reduction is over-cooked? Not surprisingly, there is evidence of tape transport fluctuations but, as it’s a fairly subdued work, distortion rarely aspires to the “sore thumb” class.

Not so much as a shred of any recording of the Fifth survives. That’s a real shame, because the more I listen to these recordings, the more impressed I become. I will happily admit that, before this set came along, I’d never even heard of Tor Mann. I guess that he regarded himself simply as an honest musician who just got on with his job. Yet, he had absorbed Nielsen’s music seated – literally! – at the composer’s right hand, and came to believe absolutely in the value of Nielsen’s music. Then again, as a professor of conducting, his pupils included such as Ingvar Lidholm, Stig Westerburg – and, of all people, Herbert Blomstedt. He thus had above-average credentials to go forth and preach the music’s gospel, so it’s a shame he got no further than Sweden.

Probably nodding towards technological limitations, Åhlén modestly admits, “the best filters are, as always, in the ears of the listener”. Duly applying my personal filters, I could discern Mann’s art shining like an arc-lamp through these variously-veiled windows on the past. For as long as I can remember, Nielsen’s music has been regarded as robust, rugged and resolute, firmly on the masculine side of the gender divide. Consequently, conductors tended to try – and continue to try – to reflect this in macho, driven performances.

Tempo was also the key to Mann’s approach but, as far as he was concerned, parade-ground precision came a poor second to guerrilla tactics: he liberated the music’s immense potential energy in a free-flowing flood, through the pervasive use of subtly elastic tempi. However, every tactical touch that inspires our immediate attention was subject to a disciplined strategy that only gradually becomes obvious. It’s hard to explain, but Mann, it seems, understood that there’s a world of difference between “driving the music” and “driving the design that shapes the music”.

Equally, he was a supremely crafty “cook” – wherever there was a pudding he could over-egg, he didn’t over-egg it. This was often a matter of finding the right basic tension for his elastic. For instance, he trod the fine line between milking those richly-scored Nielsen melodies and rushing all the meat off their bones. The classic case is the Third Symphony’s “Brahms” tune. It’s marked “allegro”, so Mann makes it move, just nicely fast enough, and suddenly it’s singing – and sounding all the better for it. The one exception, I’m glad to say, is the Sixth Symphony’s bibulously slithering trombone, which is over-egged to perfection.

Judging by the results, I get the impression that, if he asked them, Mann’s RSPO players would have followed him into the very jaws of Hell. On the down-side, there are a couple of rather dodgy transitions from crescendo to climax, which are probably down to inadequate rehearsal time or – conceivably – the recordings! However, these are minor glitches – in any other respect, it’s all “up-side”. The RSPO’s articulation of Nielsen’s nervous edges and disturbing undertows sets my teeth on edge, their joyful exuberance when in full flow fair warms my cockles, and their merry wit (in the Sixth Symphony) tickles both my fancy and my funny-bone. I have developed a soft spot for the woodwind who, fronted by a deliciously reedy first oboe, are an especially characterful crew.

Although they sing well, the two vocalists in the Third Symphony sound unremarkable. However, it wasn’t their fault – someone had a very perverse idea of what “off-stage” means. The soloists in Saul and David are uniformly excellent, their strong, even voices ringing out boldly – a little too boldly, perhaps, in the long opening scene. I find it a bit short on light and shade, becoming rather relentless – but things do improve later on. To cap it all, the gloriously lusty chorus throw themselves into their part with almost unseemly enthusiasm.

The opera is abridged, and sung in Swedish. The missing bits are substituted by lengthy narrations, which are separately tracked. Unless you understand Swedish, this is probably just as well because the booklet’s libretto is given in – guess what? That’s right, Swedish only. Forgive me, but in a booklet aimed squarely at English-speakers, that is just plain daft. If I knew what was going on, maybe that “relentless” might make dramatic sense?

To state the obvious, a large part of the attraction of historical issues in general is the “historical perspective”, the frisson of actually hearing otherwise legendary performers in action. As I’ve already suggested, these recordings belong to a particular, small subset: other than any surviving listeners to the original radio broadcasts, we’ve never been privy to them. With the fact that these recordings somehow evaded Swedish radio’s media recycling squad, and that they preserve the work of an unsung hero of Nielsen’s cause, it adds up to something so special that my hackles tingle just thinking about it.

I would not recommend this set to anyone looking for an introduction to Nielsen, but only because of the recordings’ “scathed” state and the truncated Second Symphony. Such folk should first turn to Mann’s pupil, Herbert Blomstedt, or one of his illustrious contemporaries. Nielsen fans should grab it with both hands, as a riveting and revealing supplement to their more modern recordings. Serious students of Nielsen should subject it to serious scrutiny, as in many cases it will fill a serious hole in their studies. If there is a Heaven, I’ve a feeling that Nielsen will be up there, smiling on this long-overdue recognition of Tor Mann, as one of the finest friends that his music ever had.

Paul Serotsky


 


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