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Scandinavian Classics - Volume 4
Track & performance listing below review
rec. 1937-53
DANACORD DACOCD 707/8 [74:29 + 76:42]  

Experience Classicsonline




I seem to have managed to come to this particular party somewhat late since it is announced as the “fourth and last issue in the Danish series Scandinavian Classics”. This is a shame because it has proved to be something of a treasure trove. Simply put, this double disc set presents expertly managed transcriptions of LPs from the collection (with one exception) of conductor - and liner-note writer - Claus Byrith. Clearly this has been a labour of expert love. Aside from the live performance of the Nielsen Violin Concerto these are all sourced from studio recordings made in mono between 1937 and 1953. I have to admit to being no great lover of ‘historical’ sounding recordings but these have been very well managed indeed. Yes, the dynamic and audio range is limited and there are occasional congested climaxes or surface ‘swishing’ but in fact I was very pleasantly surprised by how quickly my ear adjusted to those potential limitations and I was able to focus on the quality of the music and the music-making.
 
The chosen repertoire is a fascinating mix of the very rare and the relatively familiar. In the latter case the interest lies with the performers and the performing style. The range of music is wide - the first CD alone encompassing the early classical symphonies of Johan Helmich Roman to the wonderful but challenging Nielsen Violin Concerto mentioned above. Here’s a historical quirk Byrith points out and of which I was blissfully ignorant until about a month ago. I had no idea of the antagonism that exists between Sweden and Denmark which goes back centuries. Bizarrely this impacts on the music Danish orchestras play so that the two Roman Symphonies performed here represent the only Swedish music ever recorded by the Danish State Radio Orchestra and as far as Byrith knows the Royal Orchestra never recorded any at all. The Roman Symphonies are just about the least interesting music here. He studied in England and was influenced by Handel but these works sit as transitional pieces between the baroque and classical periods. They are in four movements but the total playing time of each is sub ten minutes. They put me in mind of the early Mozart Divertimenti K.136-8 (the so-called Salzburg Symphonies) being melodious and easy on the ear. Performances are solid - for good and ill. My ears pricked up considerably with the next work. Edouard Du Puy was Swiss-born and seems to have lived an eventful life. He settled in Sweden having performed throughout Europe as a singer and violinist. Playing for the King’s orchestra but expressing support for Napoleon was probably not a good idea so he was expelled. By 1800 he had hopped across the border to Denmark where he had success both as a composer and with the ladies. Including the Crown Princess in his conquests was again a questionable career move so he decamped again - this time to Paris. The removal of the Swedish King eventually allowed him to return there. The Youth and Folly overture included here is - apparently - still in the repertoire. It was written for a singspiel and it’s a little cracker. After a sombre chord there is a slow songful introduction led by the oboe which faintly reminded me in its second phrase of the Last Rose of Summer. Barely two minutes in any sense of profundity is replaced by a sparkling Allegro. There’s some excellent neat playing from the Royal Orchestra violins and the music twinkles and sparkles with real panache. Just the kind of thing programme planners looking for a fun curtain-raiser in the Classical style should consider. Much the same applies to Lumbye’s Dream Pictures. Byrith calls this “the most recorded orchestral work in Denmark” which serves to show my ignorance but also explains the neatness and wit of this performance. It's chock full of good tunes and nice orchestral effects and reinforces Lumbye’s title as “the Strauss of the North”.
 
The ‘meat’ of the first disc is supplied by the two works by Carl Nielsen and if the rest of this disc is fun these are great. The recording of Saga-Drøm dates from 1940 and is conducted by the colourfully named Egisto Tango. This serves to underline the interpretative significance of this release too. Tango, Naples-born gave the first performances of Bartók’s Wooden Prince and Bluebeard’s Castle. Having settled in Denmark by the late 1920s he became a great friend of Nielsen and they collaborated on a production of Maskarade shortly before the composer’s death in 1931. Tango conducted the music for the composer’s funeral. All that would seem to indicate a conductor very much in touch with the composer’s musical world. The age of this recording does rather draw a veil over much detail but what is striking is that this is a more forthright, literal less dream-laden performance than others - Tango takes pretty much an identical time to say Blomstedt; 9:11 to Blomstedt’s 9:08. Given that I’m used to the more impressionist approach, I find myself questioning Tango’s approach but clearly provenance is with him. The Violin Concerto also oozes authority. How could it be otherwise when featuring the violinist Emil Telmányi, Nielsen’s son-in-law who premiered the work in 1911? Given that he went on to perform it over seventy times in concert there cannot be another player in the world who can claim such knowledge of the work. Add a conductor of the stature of Adolf Busch on the stick - in the last year of his life - and this might just be enough of a reason to purchase this disc alone. What is most fascinating is that Telmányi finds an element of Hungarian gypsy passion in this piece which I must admit had eluded me before. For a live performance of what is one of the hardest concertos in the literature there are remarkably few spills and for all the limitations of the - I imagine - radio-sourced recording, the balance between orchestra and soloist is perfectly acceptable. Busch proves to be a highly impressive Nielsen interpreter - it’s a big-boned dramatic reading matching Telmányi’s red-blooded approach. He slightly runs out of steam in the final movement and the very last note is not as rock steady as I imagine he would have wished it but this remains a very important musical document. Telmányi did record the work four years earlier with Egisto Tango but I have not heard that version.
 
The second disc in the set is more of the same mixing the familiar with the completely unknown. On the familiar front are Grieg’s Lyric Suite and Two Elegiac Melodies. The suite is conducted by Erik Tuxen whom Byrith considers “perhaps the most versatile-ever conductor in Denmark”. The range of repertoire he conducted was vast both in age and style and he is still remembered for introducing Nielsen’s symphonies to a British audience when he conducted the Fifth Symphony at the 1950 Edinburgh Festival. This is a very fine version of the suite by any measure - it also benefits from one of the later recordings with a perceptible improvement in the fidelity of the recording. More important than that is Tuxen’s fluid approach to the pulse of the music. The first and third movements benefit from a flexible almost improvisatory feel while the two marches placed second and fourth are allowed plenty of light and wit. Much the same applies to Tuxen’s rendition of Svendsen’s Norwegian Artist’s Carnival although sat close to the Grieg it emerges as a lesser piece. Peter Erasmus Lange-Müller’s suite of incidental music to the play-with-music Once upon a Time dates from 1887 which was an instant hit. The play itself has had more than 500 performances at the Royal Theatre and parts of the music - not recorded here - remain popular in Denmark to this day. I imagine it fulfilled its role admirably because it emerges as a very amiable suite of light music - the gentle barcarolle-like Evening Music and the following Twilight Music providing some extra emotional substance at the heart of the suite.
 
The remainder of the music on this disc will be unfamiliar to the majority of non-Scandinavian collectors. August Enna’s operas are the most successful works to be staged by a ‘home-grown’ composer. The overture to The Little Matchgirl is more overtly romantic than the previous Lange-Müller although comfortably conservative for its 1897 composition date. It is unclear from the liner but it would seem to imply that this is a 1937 recording and that being so it is remarkably good both in original balance and current restoration. Hakon Børresen’s Overture The Royal Guest dates from 1919 and is even more conservative but it makes its musical points with confidence and plenty of orchestral theatrical colour - there’s a twinkling fleetness to the work that instantly appeals. After those pleasant interludes the disc rounds off with two works of greater musical weight. Harald Saeverud wrote his Galdreslåtten in 1942 as a symbol of resistance against the German occupation of Norway and it remains his best-known work. Extra interest is added by the fact this is conducted by the great Nicolai Malko. This is not an easy work to categorise - a kind of angry march-cum-passacaglia which has a strange central passage where a light instrumentation chases its own tail before the pounding back into the opening mood of studied fury. Even more contemporary - the recording dates from just three years after its composition - is Knudåge Riisager’s Qarrtsiluni written in 1938 and recorded in 1941. Byrith commends this performance for the “guts and the competence” which might sound like faint praise but in fact it does come over as an interesting piece. By the nature of its complex scoring one can’t help but feel that inner detail and accuracy is sacrificed but it has a percussive, motoric energy and that is immediately apparent when you sample more modern versions on YouTube and elsewhere (even allowing for the compromised hi-fidelity of streamed sources). For all the worthiness of this version it is one of the few performances on this pair of CDs that I feel adds little to one’s appreciation of the piece or the specific recorded version. 
 
A very interesting pair of discs throwing valuable light on a wide range of repertoire and historical recordings. The English-only liner note is interesting and sympathetic and reinforces the impression that this is a series on which has been lavished considerable care and dedication. I think the Nielsen concerto is appearing in this version on CD for the first time and admirers of that composer should consider purchasing for that reason alone if no other. A fascinating, informative and engaging set.
 
Nick Barnard 

Track Listing
Johan Helmich ROMAN (1694-1758)
Sinfonia No.16 in D major1,2 [7:29]
Sinfonia No.20 in E minor1,2 [8:35]
Edouard DU PAY (1770-1822)
Youth and Folly Overture2,4 (1806) [6:54]
Hans Christian LUMBYE (1810-1874)
Dream Pictures1,5 (1846) [8:08]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Saga-Drøm2,6 (1908) [9:03]
Violin Concerto1,9,10 (1911) [33:22]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Lyric Suite1,8 (1891/1904) [15:06]
Two Elegiac Melodies2,4 (1880/81) [8:17]
Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911)
Norwegian Artist's Carnival1,8 (1874) [6:33]
Peter Erasmus LANGE-MÜLLER (1850-1926)
Incidental Music from "Once upon a Time"2,4 (1887) [14:33]
August ENNA (1859-1939)
The Little Match-Girl Overture2,4 (1897) [6:36]
Hakon BØRRESEN (1876-1954)
The Royal Guest Overture2,4 (1919) [7:31]
Harald SAEVERUD (1897-1992)
Galdreslåtten1,9 (1942) [8:37]
Knudåge RIISAGER (1897-1974)
Qarrtsiluni2,4 (1938) [8:05]

Performance details
The Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra1; The Royal Orchestra2; Conductors: Mogens Wöldike3, Johan Hye-Knudsen4, Launy Grøndahl5, Egisto Tango6, Fritz Busch7, Erik Tuxen8, Nicolai Malko9, Emil Telmányi10 (violin)

rec. (no venues given - just years); 1937 (Enna); 1940 (Du Puy and Saga-Drøm); 1941 (Lange-Müller, Riisager and Elegiac Melodies); 1949 (Roman); 1950 (Børresen); 1951 (Lumbye, Concerto, Saeverud); 1953 (Lyric suite)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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