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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
The Organ Works
Festival Prelude for the New Century, CNW 84 (1901) (arr. for organ) [2:00]
29 Little Preludes for Organ, Nos. 1-5, CNW 96  (1929) [4:08]
As I consider time and day, for baritone and organ, CNW 185 (1914) [2:59]
A holy life, a blessed death, for baritone and organ, CNW 164 (1914) [3:17]
29 Little Preludes for Organ, Nos. 6-14 [11:40]
How wonderful to ponder, for baritone and organ, CNW 165 (1914) [3:32]
Refresh yourself in song, for baritone and organ, CNW 168 (1913-1915) [2:05]
29 Little Preludes for Organ, Nos. 15-24 [9:01]
Ah, my rose will fade away, for baritone and organ, CNW 153 (1913-1915) [2:15]
God’s angels, unite, for baritone and organ, CNW 170 (1913-1915) [1:35]
29 Little Preludes for Organ, Nos. 25-29 [6:29]
Two Preludes, CNW 98 (1931) [2:31]
Melody, CNW 97 (1929) [1:01]
Commotio, CNW 99 (1930-1931) [23:27]
Bine Bryndorf (organ)
Torsten Nielsen (baritone)
rec. 14-16 February 2016, Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen, Denmark
Reviewed as a 24/88.2 download from Dacapo
Pdf booklet includes sung texts and translations
DACAPO RECORDS 6.220635 SACD [78:14]

This one didn’t quite make it for the composer’s 150th birthday bash, but that’s no bad thing as I was overwhelmed by last year’s flood of Nielsen releases. Here Dacapo give us the organ music, played by the Danish organist and pedagogue Bine Bryndorf, whom I first heard in a lovely set of pieces by Heinrich Scheidemann and Nicolaus Bruhns (review). That was a well-deserved Recording of the Month. Meanwhile my colleague Stuart Sillitoe had only good things to say about her complete Buxtehude cycle.

Although Nielsen didn’t write a great deal of organ music he was familiar with the instrument from an early age; indeed, his half-uncle was organist at Dalum Church in Odense. The 29 Little Preludes for Organ or Harmonium were the result of organist Johannes Hansen’s request for a set of pieces with an ecclesiastical purpose. What Nielsen supplied owes as much to his love of singing as it does to any religious impulse. Bryndorf underlines the point by including several songs from the composer’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs, arranged here for organ and baritone. She rounds off with two later Preludes, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Melody and the much more substantial Commotio.

Bryndorf has two competitors in this repertoire: Elisabeth Westenholz on BIS and Friedhelm Flamme on CPO. Common to both recordings are the Little Preludes, the Two Preludes and Commotio; Flamme includes Melody and the Festival Prelude for the New Century as well. In terms of fillers BIS offer Nielsen’s Three Motets for Mixed Choir, with the Camerata Chamber Choir conducted by Per Enevold; CPO tack on some organ pieces by Rued Langgaard. Dominy Clements didn’t care for the sound of the latter’s disc, but the 16-bit download seems decent, if somewhat variable. The BIS recording, taped between 1977 and 1990, is starting to show its age, though.

Interestingly all three collections are played on modern instruments. Westenholz and Bryndorf opt for the 1965 and 1931 Marcussens in Copenhagen’s Grundtvigs Kirke and Nikolaj Kunsthal respectively; Flamme plays the 2000 Mühleisen in the Stiftskirche zu Bad Gandersheim, Lower Saxony. As Bryndorf points out in her scholarly notes she chose the Kunsthal – a rebuilt church intended for wider use – because a copy of the first published score of Commotio, in the Royal Danish Library, shows registrations ‘that fit with the Nikolaj organ’.

In the tradition of BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library we must whittle down the list before we proceed. And the first to go must be Westenholz. Her lumbering account of Commotio is followed by a foursquare approach to the Preludes. These are miniatures, each full of character and charm, and they really don’t respond well to such ponderous treatment. The Two Preludes, composed in the last year of Nielsen’s life, don’t make much of an impact either. As for the motets, distantly recorded, they aren’t terribly polished or engaging. In short, a disappointing issue all round.

Flamme’s Festival Prelude is impressive, and his traversal of the Little Preludes has more of the detail, deftness and wit that these pieces demand. Even then the music isn’t always as buoyant or as cleanly articulated as I’d like, and that leads to a creeping sense of anonymity at times. Perhaps Dominy is right, and the less-than-forensic recording is to blame for the lack of mobility and crucial detail. That said, the ‘cuckoo calls’ of No. 11 are a delight, as are the  delicate, antique sounds of No. 13 and the hymn-like No. 15. The Two Preludes are attractively done, but Flamme’s Commotio seems rather short on shape and thrust.

So, how does Bryndorf compare? She certainly has the best recording; the perfect blend of weight and detail is particularly evident in the Little Preludes, which emerge with a wonderful sense of craft and character. Also, there’s a ‘hear through’ aspect to the sound that one seldom gets with the CPO recording. As for the organ it has a warm, well-rounded disposition that’s very seductive indeed. Then there’s the inspired decision to interleave the Preludes with some of Nielsen’s favourite vocal settings. These are imaginatively and securely sung by the baritone Torsten Nielsen; Bryndorf is a discreet and sensitive accompanist throughout. Special thanks to engineer Clemens Johansen, who finds the ideal balance between voice and organ.

But it’s Bryndorf’s affectionate and spontaneous way with these surprisingly varied Preludes that deserves the highest praise. One need look no further than the first one, which has a luminosity and poise that’s simply marvellous. Even the more imposing pieces – No, 2, for instance – are commendably precise and properly scaled. Her choice of registration and the organ’s versatile, rather ‘woody’ character – especially well caught in the warming cadences of A holy life, a blessed death and the fretwork of No. 4 – add to one’s sense of joy and grateful discovery.

How does Bryndorf cope with the other works in this collection?  Her account of the Festival Prelude has all the pomp and pageantry one could wish for and the recording brings out a range of colours that makes Flamme seem almost grey by comparison. Ditto her response to the Two Preludes and Melody, which have a limpid loveliness that her rivals don’t aspire to, let alone match. The same is true of the complex Commotio, which evolves in a thoroughly natural and convincing way. Indeed, the freshness and simple logic of this performance made me feel I was hearing the work for the very first time. Not only that, Bryndorf’s telling phrases and ear-catching asides create a thrilling sense of diversity and incident.

Such is the level of musicianship and engineering here that I regret it’s too late to make this collection one of my Recordings of the Year for 2016. That said, it’s on my shortlist for 2017. Indeed, Bryndorf’s Nielsen is a worthy companion to Michael Schønwandt's board-sweeping Maskarade and the Michael Bojesen/Ars Nova Copenhagen Songs for choir, both highlights of that birthday year. And kudos to Dacapo for their devotion to this great composer and their commitment to the highest technical standards. A rare and enviable combination.

Bryndorf may be late to the party, but it was well worth the wait; peerless playing and stellar sonics make this a must-have for organ buffs and Nielsen fans alike.

Dan Morgan


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