THUMBS UP

Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Music for Wind and Piano
Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon, Op. 43 (FS 100) (1922) [26:17]; Serenata in vano for Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Cello and Double Bass (FS 68) (1914) [6:57]; Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano (FS 3h) (ca 1881) [3:37]; Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano, Op. 2 (FS 8) (1889) [6:19]; Canto serioso for Horn and Piano (FS 132) (1913) [3:54]; Fantasy Pieces from The Mother (FS 94) (1918): The Fog Is Lifting for Flute and Piano [1:50]; The Children Are Playing for Solo Flute [2:11]; Three Piano Pieces, Op. 59 (FS 131) (1928) [10:30]; Allegretto for Two Recorders (FS 157) (1931) [0:47]; Additional Material: Three extracts from the Quintet as they appear in Nielsenís autograph manuscript [2:48]
New London Chamber Ensemble (Lisa Nelsen (flute); Melanie Ragge (oboe);
Neyire Ashworth (clarinet); Meyrick Alexander (bassoon); Stephen Stirling (horn)); Michael Dussek (piano); Pierre Doumenge (cello); Leon Bosch (double-bass); Helen Hooker, Sophie Middleditch (recorders)
rec. Church of St. Edward the Confessor, London, October 2005 and August 2008; Allegretto recorded courtesy of Avie Records
MERIDIAN CDE 84580 [64:58]

My reaction on first listening to this disc from beginning to end is of the variety of musical styles from the pleasant clarinet and flute works early in Nielsenís career to the gnarly piano pieces near the end of his life. Yet all of the music on this disc is at least interesting and much of it touched with genius. I refer you to Nielsen specialist Jack Lawsonís expansive review of this recording that appears on this website for an in-depth discussion of Nielsenís career and these particular works. My focus will be on the performances themselves and references to other recordings of some of these works.

The disc opens with one of Nielsenís most popular works, the Wind Quintet. Among the many recordings I have heard in the past, I am most familiar with the one on BIS by the Bergen Wind Quintet. The BIS disc also includes the other wind pieces and one additional selection from The Mother, ďFaith and Hope Are Playing.Ē The New London Chamber Ensemble (NCLE) has nothing to fear from this competition ó though I have also been immensely impressed with the Berlin Philharmonic ensemble performance of the Wind Quintet on EMI (with the Flute and Clarinet Concertos under Rattle). NCLE perform brilliantly and characterize the variations of the last movement extremely well. The performers are equally adept in the Serenata in vano, one of my favorite Nielsen works and one which displays the composerís sense of humor. Likewise, the hornist does the Canto serioso complete justice. These three works epitomize Nielsen as a front-rank chamber music composer and contain, to greater extent than the other works on the CD, the hallmarks of the man we know and love from his symphonies and concertos.

Equally important, but totally different, are the Three Piano Pieces the composer wrote late in life. They remind me at times more of Bartůk and JanŠcek than of the Nielsen with whom I am most familiar. Thatís not to say that the composerís voice is lacking; it is not just as evident on first hearing as it is in the aforementioned works. These are powerful pieces that should be performed more often in piano recitals, but I cannot imagine their being played better than they are here by Michael Dussek. One wonders what direction Nielsenís music might have taken if he had lived as long as, say, Sibelius. He was already headed in the more dissonant direction of the piano pieces in his Sixth Symphony and the Flute and Clarinet concertos. This makes it all the sadder that he did not live long enough to compose the concertos for the other instruments of the Wind Quintet.

The remaining works on the disc may be slighter in comparison, but they are all beautifully composed and receive superb renditions. Of these, I am especially taken with the two flute pieces from incidental music Nielsen wrote to the patriotic The Mother. I should also mention the fact that the performers on this disc use the new Carl Nielsen of the Wind Quintet and include three extra tracks of extracts from the composerís autograph manuscript of the work. The booklet contains a detailed discussion of the manuscript with photos of examples from the score and extensive notes on all the works themselves. Finally, the recorded sound is very present, that is, it is recorded at a high level and close to the instruments. It is certainly brilliant, but I found I needed to lower the volume control from its usual setting. Otherwise, the instruments ó primarily the clarinet ó could be rather piercing at times. This, however, did not detract in any significant way from my total enjoyment of this disc.

Leslie Wright