C.F.E. Horneman struggled to achieve success as a composer, and by all accounts was a difficult and embittered character by the end of his life. This was despite being a notable educator and creating a music institute which became a viable alternative to the Copenhagen Academy of Music. He was held in high esteem by Grieg, and his famous fellow-countryman Carl Nielsen described him as ‘the bright flame and lambent fire of Danish music’.You can be pretty sure if you like Nielsen you will be in tune with much of what can be found here. As the booklet notes for this release ably summarise, ‘Horneman was a composer of rich talents, but never had the opportunity to unfold them as they deserved.’
This collection of Horneman’s orchestral works is dominated by pieces with a background in mythological and historical dramas. The Ouverture Héroique is one of very few of his pieces not connected with the theatre, and there is apparently no clue to what the title refers. This is a substantial work in a grand romantic idiom, with plenty of drama and striking musical gestures. One can’t help imagining programmatic content of one kind or another, with the music moving through numerous clearly defined sections, now macho and defiant, here and there tender, secretive and after a promise of encroaching adventure, a grand climax with more than a hint of Beethoven and Berlioz in the mix.
More developed musically and with numerous Nielsen-esque moments, the Gurre Suite was written for the tale of King Valdemar Atterdag, who was fonder of his castle at Gurre than respectful of the Kingdom of Heaven. The play by Holger Drachmann revolves around a love triangle, and Hormenan’s score responds to the romantic themes with positive vibes and warmth of expression. Instantly attractive and accessible, the composer’s clean orchestration and open harmonies and melodic shapes are lapped up by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Nielsen is called to mind in the harmonies of the opening minutes of the Overture, there is a flavour of Grieg about the gentle Allegretto which forms the prelude to Act II, and the tenderness of Tove’s Funeral Procession is sublime. The suite ends with an energetic Allegro non troppo which conjures ‘In the woods by Gurre’.
The Suite from ‘The Contest with the Muses’ is on the theme of King Thyramis of ancient Greece, whose contest with the muses left him blind and insane. The booklet tells of the strife caused around the originally planned theatre production, and the final première only took place after Horneman’s death. This has some beautiful pieces, including a luminous female chorus in the Mus-Kor which Philip Glass would have turned into an entire opera, and glowing passages of harmonic development such as the opening passage of the otherwise pulsating Satyrdans. The finale is another lively number, the Bakkantisk Dans, which entertains again not only through rhythmic impact, but through highly inventive harmonic twists.
Kalnus was written for a projected play about the encounter between the Indian sage and Alexander The Great. The production was once again only realised after the composer’s death, but the suite was made in the same year as the incidental music, thus saving the score for posterity. The opening movement is a genuinely ravishing Andante sostenuto which builds to a descriptive Andante. Festive music precedes the darkly dramatic sentencing of Kalnus. Alexander himself is personified in an Allegro con fuoco filled with suitably noble pomp. Shivering strings and reflectively nostalgic melodic sequences serve for Kalnus in feverish dreams which precedes Kalnus’ Død, a Molto maestoso which portrays the grim but noble sacrifice of the hero.
This is a marvellously performed and recorded release which is full of rich discovery. Fans of Nordic/Danish music need not hesitate, and should put this disc on their list of purchases; immediate or planned. Young conductor Johannes Gustavsson brings out the best of the very fine Danish National Symphony Orchestra, but one also senses that these musicians are also responding with every ounce of their abilities to the music of their forgotten countryman. It all sounds like great fun to play as well as to hear, and the DaCapo/Danish Broadcasting Corporation SACD engineering is superb.