December 18, 2008


Nielsen: Complete Piano Works. Christina Bjørkøe, piano. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Nielsen: Aladdin. Mette Ejsing, contralto; Guido Paevatalu, baritone; Danish National Chamber Choir/DR and Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Chandos. $11.99.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: Concerto Grosso for String Quartet and Symphony Orchestra; Moving Still: H.C. Andersen 200, for Baritone and String Quartet; Last Ground for String Quartet and Ocean. Paul Hillier, baritone; Kronos Quartet (David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello); Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

     Although Carl Nielsen’s piano works deservedly take a back seat to his symphonies – the piano pieces are by and large less viscerally appealing, more intellectual and drier – they do provide considerable insight into the composer, since they stretch from near the start of his career (1890, when he was 25) to the end of his life (1931; a last piano work was published posthumously). Christina Bjørkøe, a Copenhagen-born assistant professor at the Carl Nielsen Academy of Music in Odense, seems to have both an innate understanding of this music and a studied regard for it. She presents larger, more solemn and portentous works with gravity and dignity, while focusing on the many small and charming details of the less-imposing pieces. Her two-CD set is arranged chronologically, giving the listener a fine opportunity to hear how Nielsen’s piano style evolved – which it did in fits and starts rather than a straight line. Five Piano Pieces of 1890 are pleasant trifles, with Symphonic Suite (1892-4) on an altogether larger scale – not entirely successfully, since the work seems rather pedantic and mannered at times. Then there is a return to miniatures in Humoresque-Bagatelles (1894-7), a short and stately Festival Prelude for the New Century (1900), and a poetic meditation called A Dream about “Silent Night” (1905). After a break of more than a decade, Nielsen returned to piano writing with the large-scale, ambitious Chaconne (1916), written with Bach’s famous chaconne for solo violin in mind. Just a few months later, Nielsen produced his Theme and Variations (1917), another big work on a classical model that bears the composer’s unmistakable rhythmic and harmonic stamp. In 1919-20 came still another large work, simply entitled Suite – yet another Baroque form – that explores a wide range of emotions and piano techniques. Three Piano Pieces (1927-8) form a late suite of their own (they were composed after Nielsen’s final symphony) and share a certain sense of simplicity with Nielsen’s very last piano pieces, which were written specifically for students. In the 25 works of Piano Music for Young and Old (1929-30), plus a final Piano Piece (1931, published after the composer’s death), Nielsen uses only the span of a fifth in each short work – but employs considerable chromaticism, with the result that the pieces sound less like exercises than like small concert works. Bjørkøe’s handling of all the music is exemplary, and it is highly interesting to experience a less-known side of Nielsen’s output.

     Nielsen’s theater music – aside from his operas, Saul og David and Maskarade – is also infrequently heard. This is too bad, as Chandos’ re-release of a 1993 recoding of Aladdin shows. Nielsen’s 1918-9 music for Adam Oehlenschläger’s version of the familiar story of the boy with the magic lamp is constrained by the text and not of uniformly high interest, but it is filled with bright rhythms, clever orchestration and use of special effects (such as a genie’s voice produced originally by having seven basses sing through megaphones from backstage). The third act of the five-act work contains the most, and most interesting, music. For example, there is a “Prisoners’ Dance” that sounds much like a dirge, and a “Blackamoors’ Dance” that is filled with enthusiasm and features wordless female voices (Nielsen had used wordless voices in his Symphony No. 3 of 1910-11, and uses them elsewhere in Aladdin as well). The lullaby that Aladdin sings at his mother’s grave is simple and charming, and a brief song given to a messenger and a ghost is suitably chilling. Nielsen nicely handles several marches, a love scene, some outdoor scene-setting and other incidental music with a sure command of the orchestra and a fine sense of pacing throughout – and Gennady Rozhdestvensky leads the performance with attentiveness and enthusiasm.

     To hear how far Danish music has come, for better or for worse, since Nielsen’s death, listeners may want to consider a fine-sounding SACD called “Kronos Plays Holmgreen.” But be forewarned: Nielsen’s experimentation, which makes some of his music sound modern even in this century, pales before Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s. The composer’s Concerto Grosso was written in 1990, revised in 1995 and revised again in 2006 (the version heard with the Kronos Quartet). Like Schoenberg before him, Holmgreen draws on Baroque form while filtering it through his own very modern sensibilities. Instruments do emerge from the larger ensemble to play with or against it, but the sound is a significant distortion (with various degrees of subtlety) of that of Bach and Vivaldi. Moving Still: H.C. Andersen 200 has one American movement and one Danish one, and was composed for British native and Danish resident Paul Hillier, who performs it here. The contrast between Hans Christian Andersen’s prophetic "In a Thousand Years” and his patriotic “In Denmark I Was Born” serves to differentiate the New World from the Old. As for Last Ground, it is Holmgreen’s String Quartet No. 9, and it uses electronically manipulated recordings of sounds of the sea in addition to the quartet’s instruments. Unlike, say, Debussy’s La Mer, Holmgreen’s work focuses on the violent power of the ocean, almost to the exclusion of its other moods. It is an effective piece in its own way – Holmgreen has an offbeat sense of humor here, as in many of his works – but its sonic world does take some getting used to. Danish music has come a long way since the days of Carl Nielsen; but then, music in general has had a long march in the past hundred years.

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