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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Carl August NIELSEN (1865 - 1931)
Music for Wind and Piano
Wind Quintet Op 43 (1922) from the new Carl Nielsen Edition [26:17] (plus three alternative excerpts from the composer’s autograph manuscript)
Serenata in vano (1914) [6:57]
Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano (1881) 3:37
Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano Op 2 [6:19]
Canto serioso for Horn and Piano (1928) [3:54]
Excerpts from The Motherland (1920): The Fog is Lifting [1:50] and The Children are Playing [2:11]
Three Piano Pieces Op 59 (1928) [10:30]
Allegretto for Two recorders (1931) [0:47]
New London Chamber Ensemble; Michael Dussek (piano); Pierre Doumenge (cello); Leon Bosch (double bass); Helen Hooker and Sophie Middleditch (recorders).
rec. Quintet: Church of St Edward the Confessor, London, 28, 29 July, 1 August 2008; Serenata & Canto: 7 Oct 2005; Fantasy Pieces & Piano Pieces: 31 July 2008;
Allegretto recorded 10 Aug 2008 (by Avie Records)
MERIDIAN CDE84580 [64:58]
Experience Classicsonline

Reference Discs (Wind Quintet):
“ Chamber Music Vol. 1” DiamantEnsemblet, recorded at The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Nov 2006 and March 2007. Dacapo 8.226064, 2007 DDD [65:03]
“Carl Nielsen: the Historic Recordings” The Royal Chapel Wind Quintet. Recorded in Copenhagen, 24-25 January 1936. Clarinet Classics CC0002, 1992 mono AAD. [57:00] 

Meridian presents us with a remarkable CD because it delivers a groundbreaking performance of great music, with innovation and vivid clarity of sound. The extraordinary effort and enthusiasm is shown by the musicians’ close attention to the composer’s intentions. Apparently - and, I know, typically - Niels Krabbe, editor-in-chief was generous in sharing his knowledge of the newly researched score of the Wind Quintet.

It has been one of the hardest discs I have reviewed because it is irresistible to enjoy it rather than to interrupt it for comparison or pause to take notes. Nielsen’s music and this wind quintet are able to refresh and regenerate with frequent repetition. This disc takes its place alongside the essential 2007 Dacapo/Thomas Dausgaard’s orchestral music - a disc which won great acclaim and sales - because, arguably, the New London Chamber Ensemble have recorded the best introduction to Nielsen’s chamber music. I hope that MusicWeb International, with the CD’s first review, is the first to hand out the awards! I have reviewed some classy CDs this year, but this is my nomination for Record of the Year. I really tried for three full weeks to relax my excessive praise, but familiarity has bred respect; repetition has confirmed my enthusiasm. The following review is an attempt to support my strong recommendation and explain the reasons. You may know my three criteria: the quality of the music, the performance and the recording. Add in this case, authenticity of the score.

Nielsen’s Wind Quintet is his most popular work if one counts CDs in my forthcoming 2009 edition of “A Carl Nielsen Discography.” The Meridian issue makes forty recordings of this piece. These began in 1936 with the original dedicatees, a documentary issue which is hard to displace, all the more because in 1992 it was brilliantly transcribed by the Clarinet Classics label. They used EMI’s 78 RPM metal masters to press vinyl, noiseless and vivid masters. The long supremacy of this Danish “Royal Chapel” Wind Quintet recording is justified because Nielsen wrote not only for the character of each instrument but for the personality of each player. The clarinettist, Aage Oxenvad, for example, was an earthy and vigorous male with the politically incorrect (today) quote attributed of the clarinet needing to be treated like a woman. The flautist, Holger Gilbert Jespersen, was refined and more gentle. Before returning to the question of best CD, let us deal with the origin and nature of the wind quintet, the major work featured on this disc.

One evening in September 1921 Nielsen had reason to telephone the pianist Christian Christiansen. In the background he heard four members of the Royal Chapel Quintet rehearse Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. Having a special love of Mozart, Nielsen soon arrived at Christiansen’s house and began to form a plan to write a quintet and wind concertos, one for each of the five instruments. Only those for flute and clarinet were written.

From this point in Nielsen’s career his orchestral works followed the wind quintet in less complex texture and chamber sonorities. His goals and method of composition also followed the quintet in writing through the instruments giving them life by characterising them. Previously, he had sketched and fleshed out ideas especially on the piano; now he allowed the instruments to speak like a novelist allowing characters to develop a plot.

I see the Wind Quintet as a seminal work, a turning point, because it combined Nielsen’s two careers. As a classical composer his high art reached a culmination of sophistication by 1921 when he completed the Fifth Symphony, a masterpiece of the 20th century. But in Denmark Nielsen was better known as a songwriter. Here his goals and his techniques took almost the opposite direction: songs for church and choir, for school and stage, patriotic anthems and the start of the new genre of popular music. Here Nielsen aimed to prune ornamentation, to simplify by avoiding styles and conventions not essential to basic melodic principles. “Folk song lies close to my heart in such a way that when I write a certain melody, it is as if it were not I that composed it, but friends, kinsmen and the folk of the country who wished it so.” The aim was to achieve “catchy” songs which sounded familiar. And so elemental were they that they sounded timeless like collected folk-songs. In at least a dozen of his immortal songs he achieved just that.

By 1921 the Fifth Symphony had reached a peak of sophistication and the songs a depth of simplification. The Wind Quintet combines high art with popular melody. Nielsen, always a man of the people but an artist of world-class stature, had now squared the circle. This, I suggest, is the secret of his Wind Quintet which made it so popular since its first performance. It also clearly relied on Mozart’s clarity for its unique inspiration. The critics, so often hostile to Nielsen, called it an important work from beginning to end and, quite astonishing … nothing like it written before. I suggest that being Danish prevented them from realizing, as we may say on hindsight, that their countryman - and a peasant from Funen! - had virtually resolved the dilemma of “modernism” in respect of 20th century music!

During these years Nielsen was composing a lot, busy with other duties, and always thinking of the future. In the 1920s he was driven to work extreme hours which accelerated his heart condition. He did not supervise the printed scores of works he had completed months or even years previously. Mistakes, changes of minds, even performers’ notes crept into the scores and were published. It became a national concern in Denmark and in 1993 it led to a government fund and request to the Royal Library in Copenhagen. The task was to assemble an editorial team to publish the complete works of Carl Nielsen to reflect the composer’s precise and final intentions. The great project was completed in the early months of 2009, a triumph of scholarship, funding and great energy.

The project for NLCE to record the Wind Quintet had “gestated” for some years, until Meridian took it on board. The delay was fortuitous. Shortly before the recording date, oboist Melanie Ragge contacted the Edition’s editor-in-chief, Niels Krabbe, whom, she acknowledges gratefully, was rapid and helpful in his ongoing responses. The ensemble were so keen to understand the music’s authenticity that they also contacted Library’s archive, whose Jeppe Plum Andersen quickly obtained facsimiles of the composer’s autograph manuscript. The latter yields clues of intent as the final edited version aims to reveal the composer’s final decisions. Three recorded excerpts, along with insert notes with the facsimiles, illustrate the results of this care and attention to detail which distinguish this release, probably uniquely.

The Wind Quintet is written in three movements, Allegro, Menuet and the Praeludium which introduces a theme with eleven variations before the movement and the piece conclude. The theme is one of Nielsen’s hymn tunes, Min Jesus, lad mit hjerte faa (My Jesus, make my Heart to Love Thee). I had previously imagined this was a case of recycling a very good tune; one of his own, of course. I now think that the self-quote represents the fusion of Nielsen’s popular vocal with his high-art.

The chorale is played so beautifully that, once again, I began to doubt its composer: surely I’ve heard it before … maybe in my school days? Aha, the intentional familiarity of a catchy tune has caught me out!

The nice performance strikes me as a smooth perfectionism but one far from purely technical merit - soulless skill which degrades so many Nielsen performances. Neither is it an imitation of the dedicatees’ recording of 1936 which continues its documentary value by portraying the instruments and their players. The same recording, issued by Danacord, is a good transcription but retains “historic” sound. Whereas the vivid enjoyment of music is much greater on Clarinet Classics and fully justifies the care and expense of this label’s advanced technique. In 1936 the flute was Arcadian and Jespersen was fastidious and refined; the clarinet was forceful, sometimes hysterical, and Oxenvad was earthy and even abrupt.

The London performance is both contemporary and authentic. It has lots of the earthy Nielsen character and the rhythm which is more intuitive than metrical. As I said, odious comparisons are made difficult by the infectious joy but the second obvious reference is the recent recording made at the very centre of the new Carl Nielsen Edition scholarship. Here on Dacapo, the national record label, Denmark’s resources combine to make an excellent recording. It appears, however, that the wind quintet is previously issued material, Dacapo 8.224151, recorded in 1999 at Denmarks’ Radio; events sent to try discographers! Members of the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra are now called “DiamantEnsemblet” so did they really have access to the new edition? 

What I like so much about the London recording is it clearly follows Nielsen’s instructions to the players, thus it is theatrical, then genial, and then assertive and they even interrupt each other. The Danes are more an organic, breathing, and polite ensemble. While the Dacapo is a good modern digital recording, the Meridian is a revelation; and not just Hi-Fi, but sound which serves the music and the musicians.

Producer and engineer Richard Hughes and Susanne Stanzeleit bring the artists into your room so that one hears the contrasting timbres of the musicians, and their subtle interplay and timings without having to stress or guess. Just as the industry wants to retire Red Book CDs Meridian and some audiophile labels are showing that the 16-bit format can do a lot more than we had believed.

Not only is it a sensuous pleasure to hear warm, open-hearted, detailed sound which makes your Hi-Fi really work, but it serves the performance. And what a great performance it is! Pastoral passages are lovingly, spaciously unfolded without losing the urgent pulse; individual instruments express their own characters as intended, and I would have to single out each one to be fair in special praise. In following Oxenvad’s muddy boots - he was very much the earthy man from the country - we must praise the clarinetist, Neyire Ashworth, yes a young lady playing the part of this notoriously chauvinistic man who said the clarinet had to be gently but firmly treated like a woman! And the horn player, maestro Stephen Stirling, follows Nielsen’s instructions to the dedicatee Hans Sørensen and then a bit in the demanding solo passage.

This is a long review, intended - in gratitude to many people concerned - to reflect the importance of the Wind Quintet and of this recorded performance. All of the musicians must come first on the thanks list followed by the producers and the Copenhagen Library who helped and encouraged their British “rivals”. As mentioned, their work to establish the score is discussed in the sleeve notes and illustrated in three recorded excerpts. Let’s turn to the fillers.

Serenata in vano (Serenade in vain) was written six years earlier, in 1914. A lighter piece, it is humorous and highly entertaining. It is supposed to depict a serenade which fails to entice the lady love to come to her balcony, so the musicians despondently march home to play for their own amusement. It might be described as one of the lollipops on this disc to seduce the buyer. I believe that in this age of internet sampling, you will be enticed by every piece and you will enjoy the whole.

The rest of the compilation “Carl Nielsen, Music for Wind and Piano” consists of seven selections. While they are not Nielsen masterpieces, some are exquisitely beautiful gems. Taagen Letter (The Fog is Lifting) for flute and harp just melts your heart and works beautifully with flute and piano. Michael Dussek emerges as fully equal to the latest advances in the piano music on disc. The Three Piano Pieces recorded here are late Nielsen; tough to play and tough to listen to; deliberately short and, I think, experimental.

The Allegretto for Two Recorders is also a late piece, but simple and charming as intended for students; beautifully played it ends the disc as a bonus, a gift from Meridian, and then another appendix follows, the three excerpts from Nielsen’s autograph manuscript of the Wind Quintet - as if to refresh us on the disc’s major work.

This is one of the best Nielsen discs ever made. It is an excellent introduction to the composer and will delight many people who think that they know or understand the Wind Quintet. The energetic performance, the authenticity, the great work and the vivid sound come together as a “simple thing” that rarely happens. I have discovered with repeated listening, it just grows on you. With other recordings, I confess that my attention wanders. This, I think, defines the crowning achievement of the present issue. I nominate it as my Recording of the Year and I am delighted that it grows with repeated playing.

Jack Lawson
Author of Carl Nielsen, founder of the UK Carl Nielsen Society



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