Niels W. GADE (1817-90)
Comala, Op. 12, dramatic poem after Ossian for soli, choir and orchestra (1845-46)
Marie-Adeline Henry, soprano (Comala), Markus Eiche, baritone (Fingal), Rachel Kelly, mezzo-soprano (Dersagrena), Elenor Widman, alto (Melicoma), Danish National Concert Choir, Danish National Symphony Orchestra / Laurence Equilbey
rec. live, February 2017, Concert Hall, DR Koncerthuset, Copenhagen
(sung in German – full texts and translations included)
DACAPO 8.226125 [49:10]
Schumann loved it. He described it in a letter to the publisher Franz Brendel as “…the most significant (piece) of recent times…” and “…the only one that deserves to be crowned with laurels once again…” Another luminary was more reserved in his judgement: “Melodious with beautiful features, but typified by a certain immaturity; enthusiasm alone will not do” was Mendelssohn’s assessment, as Schumann reported in his diary. These titbits, drawn from Axel Teich Geertinger’s erudite accompanying note refer to Niels Gade’s secular cantata Comala, here revived on a recent disc from Dacapo. Gade was massively influenced by these figures, and they both attended the work’s premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on March 23 1846 .
The piece takes as its text the eponymous Ossianic poem by James Macpherson. It tells the tale of Comala, the beloved of King Fingal of Morven who wages war with his rival King Caracul. She has reservations about Fingal’s dangerous actions, fearing that he will not return. Although he reassures her that he will be back in time for breakfast, she resolves to covertly keep a close eye on the battle. Look away now if you do not want to know what happens but it does not end well for Comala. These Celtic legends were very much de rigeur as sources of inspiration for North European artists and composers in the 1840s. It is no surprise that Gade fell under their spell. He was especially inspired by Mendelssohn, who had conducted the Dane’s First Symphony in Leipzig some three years earlier. Comala was Gade’s third Celtic piece, and it is certainly the most ambitious, scored as it is for four solo singers, chorus and orchestra, and lasting about fifty minutes.
The work had a chequered history even before this revival recording, released to coincide with the Gade bicentenary last year. It was essentially a victim of bad timing – its German text ruffled feathers not least when the First Schleswig War between Prussia and Denmark broke out in 1848 just two years after its premiere. It was reconfigured in 1871 with a Danish text in which form it continued to be performed sporadically (and sold as a Nationalistic piece) until 1891 when it seemed to fall out of favour. The present performance restores the German text.
The celebrated French choral specialist Laurence Equilbey is the conductor here. I must confess I was quite surprised to see her at the helm for what some might regard as a rather provincial project, but a little Googling confirms that over recent seasons she has indeed been broadening her horizons in precisely this kind of repertoire. Here she marshals four superb soloists and wonderfully prepared Danish orchestral and choral forces. Dacapo seem to have lavished care and attention on this production, one of a series of Gade issues released to coincide with his bicentenary. The big question is: does Comala live up to this kind of billing?
The brief orchestral prelude reveals more than a hint of McMendelssohn in its melodic and harmonic shapes before horn calls announce the call to war, presented by an assertive and virile mens chorus. At this point it becomes obvious that this is a sumptuously engineered, spacious recording. The poised and confident German baritone Markus Eiche makes a suitably rugged Fingal. Having announced his martial objectives, he consoles the anxious Comala (the radiant soprano Marie-Adeline Henry) and reiterates that all will be well. There follows a tautly arranged (if rather forgettable) duet.
The work alternates between solo numbers and choral commentaries with solo contributions. One cannot fault the singing, conducting and playing. Everybody clearly gives their all in what is certainly a high-voltage performance. Two other excellent soloists sing the roles of the daughters of Morni, the glowing Irish mezzo Rachel Kelly is Dersagrena and the Swedish alto Elinor Wiman portrays her sister Melicoma. Comala elaborates on her deepening sense of foreboding before the sisters attempt to comfort her in a set piece led by Kelly’s Dersegrena, accompanied by a harp (how very Celtic) with mellifluous contributions from her sister and a semi-chorus of maidens. By this point the music had really begun to pall for me. I found this ballad perfectly boring, notwithstanding the consistently outstanding singing. Fatally I started to think about Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests…
To my ears, the piece turns out to be dreary and one-paced. As it proceeds, Gade continually mis-fires, seldom achieving the effects he is seeking. When Comala imagines the presence of phantoms, the music fails utterly to reflect any sort of terror. The superficially evocative textures and dynamics accompanying the chorus of spirits are fatally undermined by music that brought to my mind student drinking songs. In my view, the highlight of the work is Comala’s final solo, both atmospheric and dramatic (and magnificently sung by Marie-Adeline Henry), but it is too little, too late. Had I not had the text and translation to hand, there were times in this work where I would not have had the faintest idea what was going on. I fear on this occasion Mendelssohn was spot on in his assessment. One has to suspect that Schumann’s appraisal may well have been compromised – perhaps at the time of his critique he was enveloped in one of his manic episodes. To my ears, alas, Comala amounts to little more than a diluted hybrid of its composer’s obvious models.
Gade does have the reputation of being an inferior Mendelssohn, but I do think that is an unfair stereotype. His later symphonies, for example, exhibit hints of individuality and clues as to their Nordic provenance. This experience has not put me off wanting to hear his later scenic cantata Elverskud which Dacapo have also recently issued. But despite the best efforts of Equilbey and her resplendent forces, Comala proved to be derivative and dull. The work of a novice, in fact.