July 05, 2007


Nielsen: Chamber Music, Volume 1—Piano Trio; Serenata in Vano; Wind Quintet, Op. 43; Fantasy Piece for Clarinet and Piano; Two Fantasy Pieces, Op. 2; Canto Serioso; Three Selections from “Moderen” (“The Mother”). Trio Ondine (Piano Trio); Members of the DiamantEnsemble. Dacapo. $16.99.

      One does not usually think of chamber music when one thinks of Carl Nielsen, who made his mark mostly in the orchestral and operatic spheres. But as Dacapo makes clear in this first volume of Nielsen’s chamber music – this time, most of it with wind instruments – there are many little pleasures, and occasionally some larger ones, in Nielsen’s work for small ensembles.

      The seven works here were written as early as 1881, when Nielsen was 26, and as late as 1922: the famous Wind Quintet, by far the most substantial piece on this CD. The performances are uniformly excellent, filled with just the right blend of gravitas and lightness. But the CD’s arrangement is odd, jumping from early works to late ones and back again. This can be corrected by listening to the tracks in any order one pleases, but it would be nice to know if there was some organizing principle in this presentation or if the order is merely as random as it seems.

      The two most substantive works on this CD are also the most rewarding to hear. The Piano Trio is early (1883) and sounds little like Nielsen: the first movement has the charm, poise and classical balance of Mozart, the third is bright and Haydnesque, and the middle movement mixes classical-style emotionalism with lighter sections. Still, the work has a certain joie de vivre that is very pleasant, and Trio Ondine plays it with panache.

      The Wind Quintet is a large-scale work. The first movement is interestingly harmonized; the second features clever figurations in a “Menuetto” that is a minuet in name only, although it does have a triple-time basis; the brief “Praeludium” is solemn and cadenza-like; and the lengthy final theme and variations takes the hymnlike theme through sounds that are at times Brahmsian, at times jazzy, at times scattered, and always intricate. Of all the works here, this one most clearly possesses the “Nielsen sound.” It is also the most creatively structured and scored.

      Between these two pieces on this CD is the amusing Serenata in Vano (1914), a fantasy-like work whose attempted heartfelt expressions give way at the end to a jaunty march.

      Filling out the CD are the very early Fantasy Piece for Clarinet and Piano (1881), which is short and shows effective clarinet scoring; Two Fantasy Pieces, Op. 2 (1889) for oboe and piano, the first warm, the second jagged and rhythmically interesting; Canto Serioso (1913) for French horn and piano, an occasional piece (written as an audition item for would-be Royal Orchestra horn players) that focuses on the horn’s low range; and three short, atmospheric excerpts from The Mother (1920) – one for flute and harp, one for flute solo and one for flute and viola. Although the CD’s contents make it something of a hodgepodge, it is a very enjoyable one, showcasing some little-known examples of Nielsen’s work in enthusiastic and idiomatic performances. It will be interesting to find out what Dacapo plans for Volume 2 of this series.

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