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
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
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
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.
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