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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Maskarade, FS 39 (1904-1906) [134:56]
Johan Reuter (baritone) – Henrik, Leander’s servant; Dénise Beck (soprano) – Leonora; Stephen Milling (bass) – Jeronimus, Leander’s father; Anne Margarethe Dahl (soprano) – Magdelone, Leander’s mother; Niels Jørgen Riis (tenor) - Leander; Ditte Højgaard Andersen (soprano) – Pernille, Leonora’s maid; Stig Fogh Andersen (tenor) – Leonard, Leonora’s father; Christian Damsgaard (tenor) – Arv, a servant
Danish National Concert Choir; Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
rec. August 2014, DR Koncerthuset, Copenhagen, Denmark
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical.com
Pdf booklet includes a libretto (Danish and English)
DACAPO 6.220641-42 [134:56]

It’s been quite a party, Carl Nielsen’s 150th, and Michael Schønwandt’s new recording of Maskarade is the perfect culmination to the year’s celebrations. John Quinn made this a Recording of the Month, which compelled me to dust off Decca’s Ulf Schirmer set and compare the two. Incidentally, both conductors also feature in video versions of the work, from Capriccio and Dacapo respectively. The Schirmer CDs, a Gramophone award winner in 1999, don’t appear to have been reviewed on this site, so the following comments serve a double purpose.

With Dacapo good sound is usually a given, but even more important this performance is directed by a man who really knows his Nielsen. I’ve long admired Schønwandt’s traversal of the symphonies, originally recorded for Dacapo and subsequently reissued by Naxos; indeed, they’re every bit as good as – and certainly more consistent than – the recent cycles from Alan Gilbert and Sakari Oramo (Dacapo and BIS respectively). Schønwandt also impresses in the pit, as I discovered when I heard his Chandos recording of Strauss’s Salome (review). Always sensitive and proportionate he still manages to capture the essence of that dark, erotically charged drama.

Maskarade couldn't be more different. Set in Copenhagen in the spring of 1723 it tells the story of Leander and Leonard's daughter, Leonora, who meet at a masquerade ball and fall in love. Trouble is, Leander has already been promised to her. The plot thickens when Leonard complains to Jeronimus, Leander’s father, that said offspring appears to be besotted with a young man she met at a ball the night before. In time-honoured fashion all is resolved at another ball in the opera’s third Act, when truth – and love – triumph. There are other diversions and deceits, but that’s the nub of it. Slight, yes, but great operas have been created from much less.

Let’s start with the Schirmer set, recorded in June 1996. It also features the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and has Gert Henning Jensen as Leander, Henriette Bonde-Hansen as Leonora, Aage Haugland as Jeronimus, Bo Skovhus as Leander’s valet Henrik, and Kurt Ravn as Leonard. After a fizzing overture Schirmer, rhythmically alert and pleasantly propulsive, keeps this rather static tale moving along nicely. As befits the plot there’s plenty of bluster – coarseness, even – and the principals acquit themselves quite well. That said, they’re very uneven; indeed, their vocal shortcomings and a tendency to over-emote are wearying after a while.

As John Quinn pointed out in his Schønwandt review the music often catches the ear more readily than the singing, with hints of the symphonies still to come. For instance the quietly atmospheric start to Act 2 reminds me of the Andante pastoale from Espansiva, composed in 1910-11. Animated as he is, Schirmer falters in this diverting central section; part of the problem lies with his singers, who lack essential wit and sparkle. The orchestra make up for that with playing of commendable commitment and character.

Decca's vivid, slightly exaggerated recording – especially in the dance and choral elements of Act 3 – is typical of their output of the period. However, the sound does harden with some voices, prominent string passages and most climaxes. Schirmer makes the most of the finale’s fun and games though, and Haugland proves to be a most endearing drunkard. It’s not the most cumulative or convincing of operatic sign-offs, but it’s pleasing enough.

So, how do Schirmer and Schønwandt compare? The latter throws down the gauntlet with a very brisk, brightly lit account of the overture. There’s an urgency – a thrum of anticipation – to this performance that, to some extent at least, helps to minimise the opera’s structural/dramatic weaknesses. Most welcome, though, is the singers’ refined delivery, where vocal nuance and characterisation seem to matter more than they do under Schirmer. Also, Schønwandt shades and shapes the music with greater care and affection. As for the DNSO they play with a sophistication and subtlety that they didn’t manage the first time round.

The singing on this Dacapo set is just fabulous; it’s consistently accurate and imaginative and diction is far clearer than it is on the Decca discs. Ensemble pieces are much tidier too, with competing singers precisely located in the soundstage. Indeed, this recording - dynamic, transparent and utterly natural in every respect - is the very antithesis of that provided for Gilbert's Nielsen symphony cycle; I found the latter dry and somewhat close, although one does have to allow for the exigencies of live events. Then again these engineers are probably more comfortable on home turf - Danish Radio's Koncerthuset - than they are in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall.

There are some instances where Schirmer is more striking; for instance he has a tougher, slightly abrasive way with the score that emphasises the impulsive and original aspects of Nielsen's developing talent. By contrast, blessed with a terrific team of singers and an orchestra in peak form, gives the dances a lovely Viennese lilt that’s most attractive. The very occasional bass-drum thwacks aren’t as visceral here as they are under Schirmer, but then Schønwandt’s is more about taste than tingle.

Neither conductor is a miracle worker, so there’s no avoiding the faint stolidity of the piece. However, there is some substance here, and the meticulous, ever-sifting Schønwandt brings that out more effectively – and more lovingly – than his rival does. There’s also an underlying discipline to the performance; the perfectly blended ensemble pieces and that radiant orchestral introduction to Act 2 spring to mind here. It’s a measure of Schønwandt’s attention to detail that even the smallest parts are well taken. Christian Damsgaard is particularly engaging as the servant Arv.

Remarkably, the second Act seems far more colourful and interesting under Schønwandt, thanks to great teamwork and his ability to vary and animate the music in ways that Schirmer can’t quite manage. Time and again I was struck by what a fine pair Dénise Beck and Niels Jørgen Riis make as Leonora and Leander respectively, their secure and attractive voices the crowning glory of this fine set. By contrast Schirmer’s pair are rather unsubtle and ill-matched.

The ball in Act 3, where the masks are removed and the truth is revealed, is a rather unbuttoned affair under Schirmer. As always he and his cast opt for broad comedy, but in almost every sphere – dynamics, rhythms, colours – Schønwandt is the surer guide. Indeed, there’s an intensity and inwardness to some of the singing that one rarely hears outside the opera house. The dance music is gossamer light and the chorus, so sparingly used, is crisp and clear. The choral invocation 'Kehraus! Kehraus! Dans ud! Dans ud!' brings the ball – and the opera - to a measured but joyful close.

Paradoxical as it may sound Schønwandt‘s is the most operatic performance here; there’s no harm in slumming it, if you like that sort of thing, but if you’re looking for a truly complete and compelling account of Maskarade this newcomer is the one to have. Throw in Hennk Engelbrecht’s nicely written notes and synopsis, not to mention a downloadable libretto that can be viewed on a PC or tablet, and you have a very desirable issue indeed.

This gorgeous set confirms Michael Schønwandt as a Nielsen conductor of rare distinction; a Maskarade for the ages.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)

Review of Michael Schønwandt’s Nielsen symphony cycle (Dacapo): Rob Barnett
Naxos reissues: Symphonies 1 & 6 ~ Symphonies 2 & 3 ~ Symphonies 4 & 5

 

 



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