This remarkably comprehensive set presents nearly every recording of Carl Nielsen’s music made between the composer’s death (in 1931) and the end of the era of mono recording about thirty years later. Author, lecturer, journalist and broadcaster, Lyndon Jenkins envisaged the release of the recordings and worked tirelessly locating, listing and annotating them. Sadly he never saw the fruits of his labours but he had progressed sufficiently close to completion for Jesper Buhl (Danacord), within a year of Jenkins’s death in 2014, to use the copious material that had been assembled and complete the release.
It seems suitable to commence by considering Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony not least because of Erik Tuxen’s legendary performance of it at the Edinburgh Festival on 29 August 1950. Jenkins sums this up as “a decisive moment in the appreciation of Nielsen’s music outside Denmark”. Of the five performances of No.5 in this set there are three conducted by Tuxen – the 1950 HMV studio recording, his live 1955 version (Danacord) and the recording for which all Nielsen lovers will be eternally grateful: the one in Edinburgh (also available on Guild).There is a problem in that Tuxen produced his own edition of the score in collaboration with Emil Telmányi in 1950 (Scandinavisk Musikforlag København) and he tampered with the original publication (Nielsen's approved edition), adding woodwind doublings and many other alterations including the damping down of dynamics. He inserted eighteen bars of viola at the start of the Finale and at one point he cuts out the double basses. These amendments are discarded in other editions.
The 1950 recording was made a few months before the publication of Tuxen’s score – some, but not all of his changes seem to be there. It is a fine version nevertheless – the emendations seem mostly to appear in his 1955 Paris account where the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra seems tonally different, far from tidy and the horns are sometimes under pitch. It is unclear whether Tuxen used his revisions in Edinburgh – it doesn’t sound like it because the dynamic contrasts are so strong. This is the most powerful of the three choices and generally superior; it is rather rough in sound but is more than adequate. Tuxen gives a towering performance of what Deryck Cooke described as “the greatest symphony composed in the twentieth symphony.”
Partly because of the excellent sound quality, Thomas Jensen’s superb version, originally on Decca, has an added brilliance. This conductor shows a true feeling for suitable tempo (on some occasions Jensen played the cello in the Tivoli Orchestra when conducted by Nielsen). The 1933 recording by Georg Hoeberg is a remarkable archive: the first recording of any Nielsen Symphony. We know that Hoeberg studied Symphony No.4 with the composer but there is a slightly daunting comment by Nielsen, who heard several of Hoeberg’s performances, when he said “he takes the slow parts too slowly and the fast ones too fast no matter how much I preach to him.” True the recording can’t quite capture the thrill of Nielsen’s specific request that at the end of the first movement the side-drummer should improvise as if “at any cost he would stop the progress of the music” but there is surprisingly good timpani reproduction which makes it obvious that from figures 60 to 63 in the Finale these instruments fail to play any of the fierce outbursts and elsewhere they and the rest of the orchestra sometimes come adrift. This is a wild account: Hoeberg has eccentric moments and it is difficult to know what is going on in the ultimate coda; a fascinating document nonetheless.
The other Symphonies present fewer problems. Jensen’s 1952 Decca recording of No.1 was given excellent sound; the reading has a convincing shape and line to it – indeed this is virtually a ‘classical’ Symphony with exposition repeats. This makes it all the more surprising that in Tuxen’s also-excellent live performance from six years later the Finale repeat is not made.
I wish that conductors would take notice of Nielsen’s statement the coda to Symphony No.2 (The Four Temperaments) should be “dignified”: recent versions have this taken at an unseemly rush. Fortunately all three in this set are firmly steady and make the ostensibly cheerful melody sound noble. The 1956 version by Launy Grøndahl (chief conductor of the Danish State Radio SO from 1925-1956) has rather good sound – a little distant but with great power and very little loss of detail. He is broader than Jensen – particularly in the first movement but always robust in impulse and I enjoyed the way he hurls the timpani entries of the Finale at the listener. Jensen is represented in this Symphony by two recordings, the first from March 1944 was allotted standard HMV DB numbers although it was never issued, yet it is a rewarding version and the sound is very passable. Jensen’s second version from October 1947 – a set of four 78s – was part of the sought-after series with the Z prefix. There is a slightly tauter feel to it, the transfer of which is remarkable.
Symphony No.3 (Sinfonia espansiva) features recordings by Tuxen (1946), John Frandsen (1955) and Jensen (1959). Tuxen’s fine interpretation is done no favours by the recording which has a muddy lower register but the tempos are ideally chosen. Frandsen’s ten-inch LP was much praised and this straightforward account has much to recommend it. However, I was privileged to hear Frandsen live and I recall the exciting timbres that I heard him draw in Nielsen. Jensen is positive and better recorded – only here is it possible to hear the timpani echoing the rhythm of the opening theme as it is rounded off. The magical use of two wordless voices in the second movement is beautifully distanced in all three recordings (most effectively in the Frandsen). Erik Sjøberg is the constant baritone. It has became common in recent times to take the Finale – marked Allegro – very spaciously (Vänskä, Oramo and Rico Saccari are amazingly slow) but by obeying Nielsen’s metronome mark Tuxen is convincing – Frandsen and Jensen make the music sound cautious.
Not to be overlooked are selections from the Carl Nielsen Memorial Concert in October 1931 when Grøndahl conducted No.3. Sadly the machinery was able only to capture excerpts. Nevertheless it would have been a noteworthy event – the swinging rhythm heard from the first movement lights up the music miraculously – this must have been a great performance.
It could well be that many became familiar with Symphony No.4 (Inextinguishable) from Grøndahl’s 78s made in 1951. It is a notable interpretation – driving forward and unifying the music as it surges from one exciting episode to the next. With timpani set apart either side of the orchestra it is a matter for regret that stereo was still in the wings. These instruments are hugely assertive. Their sound in the earlier movements is modest, but in the Finale their fierce duel is sadly underplayed – unfortunate that in this very perceptive reading they make so little impact. Matters are far better in Jensen’s version: faster speeds if not quite the tidiness expected from him, but the timpani are realistic and break loose imaginatively from time to time.
Robert Simpson was troubled by the Sixth Symphony (Sinfonia semplice) because the composer’s original intention was to write something “completely idyllic”. Simpson did not query the outrageously sardonic ‘Humoreske’ but once past the agonised ‘Proposta seria’ he felt that the composer’s plan had been shattered. Simpson’s view has been strongly opposed; nevertheless I have some sympathy for it. Commentators have tried to put programmatic connotations on the disturbingly discordant climax in the first movement; Nielsen set this to rights by saying that it concerns only musical problems. Jensen avoids most suggestions of underlying tragedy by offering a straightforward reading and the Tono recording sounds immensely superior to when I first encountered it on a World Record Club LP. Perhaps the most notable example of Jensen underplaying aspects is his refusal to stress the strong accenting of melodic phrases, especially those in the slow movement – this is equable Nielsen and perhaps Simpson may have felt comfortable with it.
The Symphonies provide the listener with music-making by the greatest Danish conductors of the time although only one – Jensen – conducts all six. There is however a bonus set – discs 27 to 29 – on which Tor Mann directs the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra between 1944 and 1958. Symphony 5 is missing. Nevertheless there are interesting things here. Symphony No.1 is given bass-heavy sound. The first movement is promisingly forceful but Mann leaves out the repeats in the third movement and Finale. Symphony 2 (recorded 1944) is poor in sound with bass distortion and it fades out after nearly two minutes of the last movement because the metal masters were unusable thereafter. In any case it is no match for Jensen’s month-later version. Mann's No.3 shows a marked improvement. The repeated trumpet notes in the extraordinary tutti early in the first movement are only approximately in time yet this is a strong reading with the great advantage that the Finale goes at the same spirited Allegro tempo that had been so successfully adopted by Tuxen. No.4 is adequate in sound although a brief patch from another Mann account of it had to be used to cover a damaged section. The performance includes an especially thrilling lead into the Finale, but it is a pity that after fierce timpani strokes have heralded it, the volume for the full orchestra becomes noticeably lower and never recovers. Symphony 6 is probably the most consistent of all Mann’s recordings. Although there are studio and acetate noises none is disturbing. The quirky ‘Humoreske’ is ideally clear and Mann is wickedly expressive. It is good that recognition is given to Mann – “Carl Nielsen's Prophet in Sweden” – who played under Nielsen.
The rest of the Mann set includes Saga-Drøm, from 1961; there is a lack of dreamy atmosphere but the interpretation is sensitive and the ‘Oriental Festival March’ (from Aladdin) sounds well.
Despite the rustling background, Jensen’s Little Suite for Strings is splendid; the joyfulness with which he imbues it is a delight. In 1948 Tuxen took very similar tempos and there was the advantage of lower background noise although he was less intense – a characteristic also of his live account in Sweden in 1956 recorded a little more clearly, the main difference being a greater sense of sweep in the Finale. Jensen has the disadvantage of the oldest recording but the charm of the central ‘Intermezzo’ makes his the most memorable of the three presentations.
Jensen’s presence is also notable in the beautiful Helios Overture represented by its first commercial recording in September 1942. The depiction of the sun rising, reaching its peak and finally setting demands the softest of playing at the beginning and the end. Laudably this is audible above only the very minimum of background noise. Jensen unleashes a great drama, indeed by noon there is fierceness and the Royal Danish Orchestra becomes less precise. Ten years later, Tuxen – better recorded and with a more accurate horn section – is calmer and more measured although the brass at the main climax becomes somewhat rowdy – the problem here is to avoid it appearing as if the sun moves faster at midday – Nielsen’s requested increases of tempo need to be treated modestly. Tuxen presses forward less in a 1956 concert performance and the horn section acquits itself far more honourably. There is a further recording of Helios – and it is remarkable: Fritz Busch also conducts the Danish State Radio SO and the background-free sound is remarkably clear and natural. Busch achieves true grandeur.
Jensen’s splendid 1954 Helios and three pieces from Maskarade – a desirable ten-inch LP – sound even better than I remember. This is the finest version of the ‘Dance of the Cockerels’ – wonderfully rhythmic. Turning to his 1942 version of ‘Dance...’ with Tivoli forces, I was not sure what I was hearing: it is wildly faster and gallops messily along. Is this really Jensen conducting? Grøndahl gives a far more stylish reading. The ‘Dance...’ is again presented, with Frederik Schnedler-Petersen and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra on a dire ‘acoustic’ recording which seems to have used a handful of instruments played in a cardboard box. The music is played spiritedly if very untidily.
It was sensible to follow this with another ‘acoustic’ item: a quaint arrangement for band of Nielsen’s song ‘Jens Vejmand’, in the form of a polka, completely transformed it becomes an item for the bandstand or music-hall. It is hard to believe this was made in 1910. Of course it is greatly limited in frequency range but there is very little background disturbance and the instruments are forward and clear. I like the suggestion in the booklet that it “probably resulted in [Nielsen’s] dislike of recordings.”
The remaining excerpts from Maskarade are presented by Nicolai Malko whose 1947 version of the Overture is warm, clear and very rapid. Emil Reesen with the Berlin Philharmonic is less dashing and is hampered by a dry acoustic yet it is immensely clear. It is followed by another ‘Dance of the Cockerels’. The detail is remarkable if without humour. Finally Egisto Tango deals romantically with the lovely Prelude to Act Two; unfortunately the 1934 recording is rather poor; it is good to hear his conducting though. He was controversial in his ferocious handling of musicians when he took up residence in Denmark but later became highly respected. From the same year Tango conducts an abridged version (some two-thirds) of Hymnus amoris. This cannot compete with Jensen’s complete rendition from 1958 found alongside Pan and Syrinx and At the Bier of a Young Artist. Tango also recorded Saga-Drøm which was imaginative and better recorded but there is some rather hesitant playing and Tuxen’s 1957 version is far more satisfying.
There are three versions of the Violin Concerto, including the one with Yehudi Menuhin, notable for Mogens Wöldike’s sympathetic conducting. Menuhin has won both acclaim and criticism for his interpretation. I take the middle view in that I find the music to be presented straightforwardly enough but without the spark that might attract listeners to it. The other two recordings are by Emil Telmányi. His 1947 version is from 78s with Tango and the Royal Danish Orchestra. The other is a 1951 concert conducted by Busch. The latter is better recorded. The earlier version is still of good quality and it is interesting how much more mellow the violin sounds. The start of the Finale is a case in point – both include some delightful glissandos. Where spiccato is used in the second idea it is sprightly and delicate under Tango, whereas the Busch version finds the violin tone much more resinous, and there is more than a hint of aggression.
One of the most interesting features of this survey is the closeness of many of the performers to the composer. Telmányi was Nielsen’s son-in-law; all the Danish conductors either knew Nielsen or played for him; and when it comes to wind-players there was a special relationship which started when Nielsen was captivated by the playing of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet: Paul Hagemann (flute), Svend Christian Felumb (oboe), Aage Oxenvad (clarinet), Knud Lassen (bassoon), Hans Sørensen (horn). Soon Holger Gilbert-Jespersen replaced Hagemann and Nielsen planned to compose a Concerto for each musician. Sadly only Gilbert-Jespersen and Oxenvad were afforded this honour.
It is very fortunate that we have a recording in excellent sound of Gilbert-Jespersen in the Flute Concerto. The transfer of the 1954 Decca version is outstandingly good and the composer’s intentions are brilliantly brought out. Gilbert-Jespersen was a man of refined taste so Nielsen musically offends by interrupting him rudely from time to time with a trombone. It appears that he took this all in good part. The skill of the 64-year-old dedicatee was undimmed when he made this recording; the delicacy and flair of his playing is memorable. Poul Birkelund (who studied under Gilbert-Jespersen) is represented by the Concerto in 1959 – Jensen once again conducts. The Birkelund recording is remarkably good and the approach not too dissimilar although Jensen does not allow the trombone to be quite so vulgar.
Aage Oxenvad was an entirely different person – reputedly he was irascible, immortalised in the Clarinet Concerto. Oxenvad did not live long enough to record the work, but Ib Eriksson represents his character splendidly in a 1954 Decca recording conducted by Wöldike; very realistic balancing and this time the soloist’s ‘opponent’ is a side-drum. There is also a rare live recording made a few months earlier by the same artists; both are outstanding. There is also Louis Cahuzac with Frandsen and the Royal Danish Orchestra, made in 1947. It differs considerably from Eriksson, being slightly more careful with a weighty orchestra and realistic percussion, and Cahuzac does not overdo the supposed choleric nature of the dedicatee.
MUSIC FOR WIND INSTRUMENTS
The Wind Quintet was composed for Nielsen’s wind-playing friends. They are in wonderful form from 1936 and this gives the opportunity to hear Oxenvad. Here is music-making both beautiful and sprightly – the recording is amazingly clear and the interpretation is the ultimate in authenticity. The same may be said of the Serenata in Vano – a charming work for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass. Again the performance is unsurpassable. On the same day oboist Svend Christian Felumb recorded the Two Pieces for Oboe and Piano. He is also represented as conductor in two recordings of the Incidental Music to Aladdin, both with the Tivoli Orchestra although the 1936 document omits the ‘Prisoners Dance’ whereas in 1953 all seven excerpts were recorded. The 1953 recording is superior.
Nielsen’s four String Quartets are fully represented; the first set down was No.3 (E-flat) which the Ehrling Bloch Quartet recorded in 1946. I find this the least approachable of the four except for its third movement, a somewhat sad melody over pizzicato accompaniment. Previously I have heard a poor transfer of this heavy-sounding recording, here decent clarity is achieved. The sound still does not compare with that given by Decca to the Koppel Quartet in 1954 in No.4. This is perhaps a more ‘modern’ composition yet it is also more accessible and Nielsen’s sense of humour is well evident in the Finale. The reproduction in 2 and 3 (recorded for Tono) is less bright and still clear and the players are no less sympathetic.
The two Violin Sonatas are given by Telmányi who recorded them in 1954 with Victor Schiøler in very decent sound; surprisingly only the Second of them is represented here. For Sonata No.1, the version from 1936 with Christian Christiansen is used – a very fine transfer and the 18-year-newer recording that follows is not too much of a shock. It is in the Finale that the composer is the most serious and thoughtful – a rare example of Nielsen dwelling on troubled interludes rather than pushing purposefully forward. Telmányi is quite dramatic in his approach to the Sonatas and yet, when in his 1935 session with Gerald Moore he plays the ‘Romance’ (his arrangement of the first of those oboe pieces), he is surprisingly generous in his use of portamento and vibrato. In music from Moderen (The Mother) there are flute contributions from Gilbert-Jespersen and Birkelund.
MUSIC FOR PIANO
There is fair representation of Nielsen’s piano works played by distinguished pianists. The very approachable Chaconne is performed by France Ellegaard with firmness – the decorative themes that adorn the basic sequence of notes are varied and the end of the reading leaves the underlying sequence in the mind of the listener – sensed rather than heard. Two major works: the Theme and Variations and the six-movement Suite (Den Luciferiske) are played in decent 1952/53 sound by Arne Skjold Rasmussen. The former is notable for an amazingly powerful final climax. The Suite – composed for Artur Schnabel – is a remarkably varied composition with a wild and threatening finale; Rasmussen is spectacular here. The Symphonic Suite is more classical and Herman D. Koppel is solid in interpreting this bold, energetic music.
Eyvind Møller gives superb performance of Piano music for Young and Old: two remarkable suites, each piece all kept within five-finger range and exploring every key – a wonderful gift for the youngest of pianists; in the hands of a master such as Møller, a remarkable experience. These are stereo recordings. No less delightful are Humoresque-Bagatelles and Five Piano Pieces. However there are reservations concerning Galina Werschenska. The Bagatelles describe toys and events in the nursery but the romantic shadings in the performance detract from the innocence of the music. The 1937 recording makes the left-hand seem very heavy. The Five Pieces, 1945, are better balanced although there is more background noise. It is a shame that Møller’s superb renditions from 1957 of both works were not included.
It is a cause for regret that there is no recording available of the delightful Springtime on Funen. There is one gem: the beautiful tone-poem Sleep, which uses a large orchestra with the utmost gracefulness and is given a sensitive rendition under Johan Hye-Knudsen. The Danish Radio Choir is excellently balanced. The inevitable disturbance of sleep commences seven minutes into the work – there is excellent detail and also controlled singing in this disquieting central section.
This recording of the 1929 Three Motets could hardly be more valid. Written for Mogens Wöldike and his Palestrina Choir (now the Danish Radio Madrigal Choir), the group in this excellent taping from a concert in 1954. And in one of the choral songs there are heroic solo passages from Thyge Thygesen – and amazing sound quality for 1934.
The Songs are many and varied. Naturally the most popular predominate and ‘Jens Vejmand’ is frequently present. Tenor Aksel Schiøtz is represented by a whole disc. His interpretations are confident and above all consistent; Schiøtz’s graceful voice illuminates numerous elegant settings. Sensibly coupled on another disc baritone Einar Norby sings fourteen numbers, with some overlapping Schiøtz, although Norby does not present the songs as vividly as does Schiøtz. Generally the Norby recordings were made a decade later but there is no great difference in quality. Three of the songs have organ accompaniment including ‘Min Jesus lad mit hjerte få’ (My Jesus let my heart and soul) which is the theme used by Nielsen in the Finale of the Wind Quintet – a pity that Norby is so backwardly placed here.
Norby is preceded by six Songs recorded in the early 1950s by the very popular boy-soprano Preben Tomtoft. There is none of the strained effect sometimes heard in English cathedral voices of this type, but neither is there any expressive input. Tomtoft is admirably in-tune but I don’t envisage listening to this sequence again soon. Elsewhere one very different setting captures the attention; the ‘Vocalise-Étude’ sung in 1952 by Gerda Fleischer accompanied by Kjell Olsson. The singer starts slowly and sadly, progressing through a troubling central section before the music turns into a graceful waltz and ends optimistically.
A small if significant facet of Nielsen’s output is his organ music – the most important example being the extensive Commotio composed in 1931, the final year of his life. It has a four-movement symphonic pattern: fantasia-fugue-slow movement-fugue. Two artists have their interpretation included – Georg Fjelrad at the organ of Denmark’s Radio Studio in 1953 and Finn Videro at a 1960 concert in Batell Chapel, Yale University. There are considerable differences between the two: I prefer Fjelrad’s faster tempo for the first fugue and it is a dramatic musical moment when he pauses before the second one. Videro’s recording is at a much lower level and lacks dynamic contrast – it may have suffered some compression. Fjelrad has more presence and he displays great drama and much vitality. Although Videro’s swifter tempo for the later sections is very convincing, he is not ideally represented sonically, especially when it comes to Nielsen’s adventurous writing for the pedals. However, there can be no doubt of the validity of his interpretation since he played Commotio to Nielsen prior to its posthumous premiere. Videro’s 1965 stereo performance of his arrangement of the Festival Prelude is included and is a more representative example of Videro’s art. Not to be ignored are Niels Otto Raasted’s account of four Preludes recorded on the impressive organ of Vor Frue Cathedral in Copenhagen.
Both of Nielsen’s operas are here. Grøndahl’s conducting of Maskarade – a broadcast performance from January 1954 – is a valuable document. Ruth Guldbeck and Norby are outstanding and this joyous music is presented vividly with all the good humour that the hilarious plot implies. Thankfully removed is the narrator used to clarify the plot. No texts are provided but presumably most Nielsen enthusiasts will have another recording which will include the printed words, it is also possible to download a score from the Internet.
I suppose the Biblical account of Saul’s downfall will be familiar enough to help listeners follow Saul and David. Here is a fine version of it recorded in 1960 by Jensen with a strong cast led by the commanding Frans Andersson as Saul. Jensen is in total command of this demanding opera, conveying the drama so vividly that one’s attention is always captured.
In the Mann volume is another version of Saul and David, sung in Swedish. The 1957 recording is excellent and Sigurd Björling is outstanding as Saul. Unfortunately a copious amount of explanatory if distracting narration is included. I regret that in neither account do I hear evidence of one of the most remarkable stage directions in opera: “Saul seizes his spear and in a frenzy of passion hurls it at David who leaps aside” – but the spear must surely have landed somewhere.
Carl Nielsen on Record is very well programmed. The booklet gives a general listing of the contents and the cardboard covers are even more thorough: movement specifications, timings, dates of composition and recording, all are there. Lyndon Jenkins’s booklet note is tremendously informative. With few exceptions the orchestral music is performed by the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra, which consistently plays with superior skill. The sound achieved from even the most ancient of recordings is often amazing. Andrew Walter of Abbey Road Studios and Claus Byrith were the restoration engineers. Byrith (one of whose recent successes was the transfer all of Haydn’s Symphonies under Ernst Märzendorfer) had already worked with Jenkins on a number of projects involving Scandinavian music. Swedish Radio restored the Mann recordings. Some will recall the thorough listing in 1968 of all commercial recordings of Nielsen’s music recorded up to that time, compiled by Claus Fabricius-Bjerre. They feature in the current set. It must have been an unimaginably difficult task for Jenkins to locate them; furthermore not only do we have restorations of 78s and LPs, there are also many tapes of concerts. If only Lyndon Jenkins could have lived to see this triumphant culmination of his work.
This is a fascinating, illuminating and unique release.