Scandinavian Classics, Volume 2
Friedrich KUHLAU (1786-1832) Incidental music to The Elf Hill, Op. 100 [25:59]
Niels W. GADE (1817-1890) Concert Overture, Echoes of Ossian, Op. 1 [13:45]; Novelettes for String Orchestra, Op. 53 [16:50]; In the Blue Grotto [3:50]
J.P.E. HARTMANN (1805-1900) Little Kirsten Overture, Op. 44 [9:01]; Funeral March for Bertel Thorvaldsen [4:20]
C.F.E. HORNEMAN (1840-1906) Aladdin, Fairy-Tale Overture [7:58]; Gurre-Suite [14:29]
P.E. LANGE-MÜLLER (1850-1926) Prelude to Drachmann’s play Renaissance [4:22]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931) Maskarade - Excerpts [13:24]
Poul SCHIERBECK (1888-1949) Fête Galante Overture, Op. 25 [8:53]
Peder GRAM (1881-1956) Poème lyrique, Op. 9 [7:29]
Svend S. SCHULTZ (1913-1998) Serenade for Strings [15:51]
Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra/Erik Tuxen (Kuhlau, Horneman, Lange-Müller, Gram, Schultz, Gade Novelettes, Hartmann overture, Nielsen overture and prelude), Launy Grøndahl  (Schierbeck, Gade overture, “Blue Grotto,” Hartmann funeral march, Nielsen dance)
rec. 1942 (Horneman overture), 1946 (Kuhlau, Hartmann overture, Lange-Müller, Gram), 1947 (Hartmann funeral march), 1948 (Gade Novelettes, Horneman Gurre-Suite), 1950 (Gade overture, “Blue Grotto,” two Nielsen excerpts, Schierbeck), 1951 (third Nielsen excerpt), 1952 (Schultz), Concert Hall of Danish Radio (except Horneman overture, Stærekassen), Copenhagen, Denmark
DANACORD DACOCD 673-4 [73:44 + 72:25]

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This is a collection of quite rare Danish theatre music recorded in mono by the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra between 1942 and 1952. If you do not immediately see yourself as being in the market for such music - which you have likely never heard before - I doubt that the set is for you, but it has its surprises. There is in fact much to enjoy in this two-disc set, curated by conductors Erik Tuxen and Launy Grøndahl.

The first CD begins with Friedrich Kuhlau’s suite of music for the play The Elf Hill. The overture is very Rossinian in aspect, with chipper tunes and the Italian’s characteristic penchant for cymbals and triangles. The suite is full of quite enjoyable music - of particular note is the lovely “Dance of the Elf Maidens”. If it does not grab your ears, it at least constantly satisfies them. One caveat: the incidental music concludes with a twenty-second hunting call for the horns which means that the selection is rather anti-climactic.

Luckily, what follows is Niels W. Gade’s substantial tone-poem Echoes of Ossian. Gade was probably the most significant Danish composer of the nineteenth century - his symphonies are superb - and his Echoes is, like Mendelssohn’s Hebrides, a “concert overture” written before the term “symphonic poem” entered common use. I actually have heard this work before, in a recording conducted by, of all people, King Frederik IX, ruler of Denmark from 1947 to 1972. King Frederik, it seems, was a music enthusiast so gifted that he was able to conduct the Royal Danish Orchestra and Danish Radio orchestras on occasion, and even recorded Echoes of Ossian as part of a set of his personal favorites to be found now on Dacapo. (His recording of the Wagner Tannhauser overture is particularly notable.)

Echoes is dark and brooding in content, reminding me in tone - though not in melodic content or orchestration - of the first movement of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony. There is a reassuring, lyrical second subject with hunting-horn undertones, entrusted to the oboe at around the five-minute mark. King Frederik really lays on the gloom in a very slow, steady account; the present recording, led by Grøndahl, is rather more lively and all the better (and more dramatic) for it.

The Gade Novelettes for String Orchestra are expressively quite the opposite of the overture; they are very charming and ought to appeal to anybody with a fondness for Grieg’s Holberg Suite. I like these more with each listen, and will probably add them to my string orchestra playlist alongside similar music by Grieg, Wirén, and Sibelius. This music is undeservedly a rarity, although a handful of modern recordings are available which also, temptingly, include Gade’s other set of Novelettes. Gade’s contributions to the present album conclude with “In the Blue Grotto,” a rather song-like, or even operatic, excerpt from his ballet Napoli.

J.P.E. Hartmann’s overture to Little Kirsten opens with a sweeping harp solo that brings Smetana’s Má Vlast to mind, but the work ends up being another light-hearted, inoffensive overture in the Italian style. It rather outlasts its welcome, unfortunately; I grew tired at around the six-minute mark. The Funeral March for Bertel Thorvaldsen does not suffer from the same deficiency; rather grandiosely scored for organ, brass, percussion, and frankly inaudible winds, the piece does double duty as a memorial to the sculptor who was its namesake and a really enjoyable example of music so earnest and so stern as to become a bit of a self-parody. At least Hartmann raised his children to have good taste in music: his daughter married Niels W. Gade.

The second disc opens with the Aladdin Fairy-Tale Overture of C.F.E. Horneman, which, despite some courageously ‘exotic’ scoring for flute and harp, is rather more Fairy-Tale than it is Aladdin. The opening two minutes are quite dramatic. Horneman’s cartoonish Gurre-Suite outstays its welcome, even at just fifteen minutes, and Lange-Müller’s tempestuous prelude to the play Renaissance is not an improvement.

Next, however, we encounter the most famous work of Danish theatre music, and indeed one of the most famous pieces of Danish classical music there is. Excerpts from Carl Nielsen’s opera Maskarade are a welcome relief from the mediocrity of that which has come before. The witty, sparkling Overture and Dance of the Cockerels here bookend a pastoral prelude to Act II. This music is sufficiently rooted in the repertoire that plenty of modern recordings are available; Thomas Dausgaard on Dacapo, for instance, omits the Act II prelude but conducts the overture and dance with the same effervescence as and Grøndahl, in crisp digital sound.

Happily, from Nielsen on out the music on the second disc is of much greater interest. Poul Schierbeck’s Fête galante is quite a celebration, orchestrated in very good cheer. The Poème lyrique by Peder Gram, in contrast, is eerie and melancholy; it reminds me of the haunting Bernard Herrmann scores to films like Vertigo, though Gram came of course first. In even more modern a language is Svend Schultz’s Serenade for Strings, which is cheery and quite refreshing but maintains a harmonic spunk and rhythmic energy that bring to mind Stravinsky or the Swede Dag Wirén. The Serenade is like a nice glass of cool water at the end of a long musical journey, although this feeling is at least in part because some of the prior selections had left me thirsty for rewarding listening.

A mixed collection, then, ranging from the weighty (Gade’s overture, Nielsen, Gram) to the witty (Gade’s Novelettes, Schultz) with a lot of light-hearted incidental music in the middle. Not all of this is really remarkable or memorable. The Danacord liner-notes also document the problems encountered when creating these transfers of the original recordings, which date from 1942 to 1951. Some of the tracks (such as the Children’s Dance in Elf Hill) still have regular clicks every few seconds, a few sound markedly better than others (Aladdin and Ossian are quite fine) and the hiss gets louder and softer within some of the pieces - there is an audible increase at 4:20 in the first, and 2:50 in the second, of the Gade Novelettes. The sound never actually detracts from the enjoyment of the music itself. I should note, however, that I am not as dedicated an audiophile as some and am willing to praise even the poorest of mono recordings if the “character” of the acoustic seems to me suited to the music. The gentle hiss and somewhat constricted string sound of the Gade Novelettes, for example, combines with the tuneful, cheery music to make me feel like I am watching a charming domestic comedy film from the 1940s.

If the repertoire intrigues you, especially beyond the very widely available Nielsen, and if you are willing to bear the antiquated sound, do enjoy this two-disc set. I believe, though, that while much of the music here will satisfy, Hartmann, Horneman and Lange-Müller in particular will fail to win many new friends. An enclosed advertisement for Volume 3 promises Nielsen, Grieg, Svendsen, and Sibelius. Call it the prejudice of familiarity, but to me that volume sounds more promising.

Brian Reinhart