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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Maskarade (1904-6): Overture [4:27]; Prelude to Act 2 [3:14]; The Cockerels' Dance [4:52]
Rhapsodic Overture: A Fantasy Journey to the Faroes (1927) [8:47]
Helios Overture (1903) [9:13]
Saga-Dream (1907-8) [8:43]
Pan and Syrinx (1918) [8:59]
Aladdin Suite (1918-19) [23:18]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Gothenburg Concert Hall May 1995
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 447 757-2 [72:24]

Firstly I have to say that all the pieces on this disc, with the possible exception of the Faroes Overture are unmistakeable Nielsen, a composer whom I was slow to discover for myself, but whose music I now treasure. I love his bracing energy, originality, heroic, life-affirming spirit and complete lack of sentimentality – the latter being one reason why he does not have a wider appeal.

The Maskarade Overture receives a brilliant performance, just the kind of jump-out-of-bed tonic one might need on a grey morning. The Prelude to Act Two is rather typical in that Järvi tends to minimise atmosphere. Here and at the beginning of Helios he is a little impatient.
The Fantasy Journey to the Faroes is a quirky piece, a late work composed after the Sixth Symphony. It is often dismissed as an occasional piece, even by Nielsen himself, though it has oodles of character, with mad screams from gulls and old Faroese melodies. Although Nielsen called it “an example of workmanship if you like”, he added in the same 1927 interview: “I think it has come to sound very good” … and “the work has filled me with pleasure”. It is well worth reading the long excerpt from the interview included in the Wikipedia entry. Nielsen authority Robert Simpson also used the demeaning words “musical jobbery”, but I suspect he must have liked it because he included it in one of his Innocent Ear broadcasts many years ago. One can definitely sense Nielsen enjoying himself and I readily share that enjoyment. Järvi gives an ideal performance, bringing out with relish all the eccentricity and uncomplicated jubilation. I have always felt his greatest strengths lie in music away from the beaten track – often music of lesser stature. If this sounds patronising, I must add that he was among the half-dozen finest conductors I ever played for.

My instinct suggested that Helios was too quick in the opening section. I checked the score and found only Andante (tranquillo), but I will stick to my first impression, and in any case this is too hurried for tranquillo. The opening needs to be rather more expansive if it is to avoid sounding perfunctory. This sun wakes up far too quickly and again atmosphere is missing. Thereafter the faster section goes very well. Robert Simpson once found fault with Helios, saying that logically the sun does not change tempo - or something similar. To me this is plain silly. Primarily Helios is a glorious piece of music with a satisfying structure, a magical evocation of sunrise in the Aegean, followed by an invigorating Allegro, typical of Nielsen's life-affirming spirit. It is basically not a piece of programme music - it simply takes its initial inspiration from the Aegean sunrise. It is to my mind a major work of terrifically uplifting character. At random I pick for comparison the relatively unknown Lance Friedel and the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra (a fine MSR Classics disc of very similar content to this DGG). Now here is genuine stillness at the opening and indeed it's a really good performance overall. His Pan and Syrinx is excellent too. I have owned this MSR CD for about four years without paying it serious attention, so I had no preconceived opinions.

Järvi's Saga-Dream, another really fine, imaginative piece (more often called Saga-drøm), is generally very good but the first appearance of the more animated music in the strings seems to me too purposeful, where a little more mystery is preferable. The symphonic poem Pan and Syrinx is a nine-minute masterpiece, mysterious and profound. Here Järvi conveys the essentially disturbing character, but again Friedel is stronger on atmosphere and drama. He seems to be a natural Nielsen conductor, so I wonder if he might record the symphonies. Comparing the discographies, I would say that Friedel scores about 3 or 4 % of Järvi's vast output, though admittedly there is some difference in their respective ages.

The complete score for Aladdin amounts to eighty minutes of music (as recorded by Rozhdestvensky on Chandos), but the suite, much the best music, has been included on various CDs. The most celebrated movement is The Marketplace at Ispahan, with its eccentric Ivesian convergence of four different musical elements, each in its own tempo and key, but composed with admirable economy. All seven movements of the suite are characterful. If Peer Gynt is done to death, why is this colourful incidental music neglected in the concert-hall? Once again, go to Friedel for an even more imaginative and convincing realisation of the Ispahan movement (- another bonus is the choral contribution) and indeed the entire suite. Friedel also sounds as though he really believes in the Faroes Journey – a great performance. However, I may have banged on too much about Friedel because he is lesser-known, instead of the matter in hand. The above reservations notwithstanding, the Järvi is undoubtedly worth acquiring for its vitality and authority. The recording is as good as one would expect from DGG and the same applies to David Fanning's notes.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

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