Copenhagen-born Otto Mortensen may be little known outside Denmark
but he is regarded as one of the country’s foremost song composers
of the 20th century. He belongs to the same generation
as Herman D. Koppel and Vagn Holmboe or, to mention three reasonably
well known Swedish composers, Dag Wirén, Lars-Erik Larsson and
Gunnar de Frumerie. De Frumerie a particularly relevant comparison
since he was also a brilliant composer of songs.
were not die-hard modernists as those colleagues born just before
the turn of the century: Riisager and Bentzon and in Sweden
Hilding Rosenberg. They were rather drawn to ‘utility music’,
in Mortensen’s case Hindemith became a source of inspiration.
He went to Charlottenburg in Berlin in the summer of 1930 where
Hindemith was teaching and he brought his ideas back to Denmark.
He also encountered the music of Kurt Weill and back home he
wrote songs in German cabaret style for Lulu Ziegler, whose
regular accompanist he was at the beginning of her career. An
echo of that can be heard in the song Mirakler (tr. 21),
which has a nicely lilting rhythm, faintly reminiscent of Weill’s
with Hans Eisler and also with Darius Milhaud. His oeuvre encompasses
a symphony, some other orchestral works and chamber music but
first and foremost he wrote vocal music, including lots of choral
music. He is a great favourite with Danish choirs.
The songs on this
disc span a period of almost twenty-five years, from the early
Danmark, nu blunder den lyse nat (1928) to Forsommersang
(1951). He continued composing until the very end but the selection
here is possibly from the most creative part of his life. It
should be noted that he didn’t always publish his songs immediately
but preferred to collect them in thematic groups. Thus the 10
Danish Songs, published in 1940, contain only one song from
that year but songs from the entire 1930s as well as the earliest
song on this disc, written in 1928.
This song, Danmark,
nu blunder den lyse nat (Denmark, the pale summer night
now dozes)(tr. 1), and many of the others, is rather simple,
strophic and folk-like. They are often melodically agreeable
and the majority of them are settings of nature poetry. Among
the earliest songs Aftenlandskab (Evening landscape)
(tr. 5), Sommernat (Summer night) (tr. 8) and Normandiet
(Normandy) (tr. 9) are especially attractive. The humorous Tidligt
forår (Early spring)(tr. 7) is perhaps even fresher and
Yet more personal
are some of the 10 Songs to Texts by Nordic Poets. Køretur
(A drive) (tr. 10) has similarities to Verdi’s Stornello,
especially the rhythmic accompaniment. In the setting of Ragnar
Jändel’s Det regnar (It rains) (tr. 13) one hears the
rain incessantly in the piano, and though Gustaf Fröding’s Vinternatt
(Winter night) (tr. 14) doesn’t specifically say so it seems
that those who are moving through the winter night are in fact
skiing; one can hear the ski-sticks being regularly put down.
I am less convinced about the setting of Esaias Tegnér’s powerful
Det eviga (The eternal) (tr. 12). This is one of the
central poems in Swedish 19th century literature
and I miss the nobility, the solemnity. Maybe a more substantial
voice, preferably a bass-baritone, would have given added weight,
but I doubt that it would have been enough. Likewise the setting
of Nobel Prize Winner Pär Lagerkvist’s Det är vackrast när
det skymmer (It is never more beautiful than at dusk) (tr.
15) feels bland when compared to Gunnar de Frumerie’s version.
best songs on the disc are those composed in the mid-1940s for
the American soprano Anne Brown, the first Bess in Gershwin’s
Porgy and Bess. When the war was over she visited Copenhagen
to sing the role at Det Kongelige Teater. Since Otto Mortensen
was repetiteur at the theatre he got to know her and she added
some of the songs to her repertoire. The setting of Ogden Nash’s
Adventures of Isabel (tr. 17) is really congenial in
its shifting moods and burlesque humour. So is John Masefield’s
grandiloquent Laugh and be merry (tr. 18) but like Det
eviga it would have benefited from a grander voice. Jakob
Naeslund Madsen does what he can but his lyric tenor is at least
one size too small for the song and he has to resort to shouting
and pressing the voice beyond its limits.
The songs From
7 Songs (1951) (trs. 19-22) are all excellent with an extra
plus for Mirakler (tr. 21), which should be a perfect
encore to any song recital with Nordic songs.
The last three songs
were never issued in any collection but they belong to Mortensen’s
best known and have been published in a lot of songbooks. They
are again simple and natural, somewhat in the vein of Carl Nielsen’s
best songs in the folksy mould.
The singers are
truly committed in their singing. Signe Asmussen has a special
flair for the lyrical and more inward pieces and is very sensitive
to nuance though occasionally unsteady. Jakob Maeslund Madsen
is best suited to the livelier songs and is expressive and enthusiastic,
even though his tone tends to be strident. Christen Stubbe Teglbjaerg’s
accompaniments cannot be faulted and the recorded sound is excellent.
may not be in the same league as Nielsen, Grieg, Sibelius and
Rangström, to mention four Nordic song composers of international
stature, he has a great deal to offer and the English settings
are masterly. A largely attractive acquaintance.