NICOLAI: Die lustige weiber von Windsor / Edith Mathis, soprano (Mrs. Ford); Hanna Schwarz, contralto (Mrs. Page); Helen Donath, soprano (Anne); Kurt Moll, bass (Sir John Falstaff); Peter Schreier, tenor (Fenton); Siegfried Vogel, tenor (Mr. Page); Karl-Ernst Merker, tenor (Slender); Claude Dormoy, tenor (Dr. Caius); Bernd Weikl, baritone (Ford); Kurt Ludwig, baritone (A Citizen); Helmut Strassburger, narrator; Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra & Chorus; Bernhard Klee, conductor / Brilliant Classics 94702 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
Verdi’s Falstaff may indeed be a masterpiece, but Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor is immeasurably funnier, with numerous bright and buoyant arias and ensembles. This is my favorite recording of it.
NIELSEN: Af Sted! Aprilvise. Grøn er Vaarens Hæk. Den danske sang. Den milde dag er lys og lang. 5 Holstein Poems: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Genrebillede. Havets sang fra “Willemoes” [Song of the sea]. Hiemvee [Underlige Aftenlufte]. Hymne til Danmark. Irmelin Rose. Jens Vejmand. Klagesang. Princess Tove [Min Pige er saa]. Sangen om Danmark. Sundt Blod / Aksel Schiøtz, ten; various accompanists / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
No one has ever quite sung Nielsen’s songs with as much heart or as light a touch as Aksel Schiøtz, the brave tenor who risked his life to carry messages in and out of Denmark under the nose of the Nazis. The resultant stress of this endeavor led to his suffering a paralyzed vocal cord in 1946, from which he miraculously recovered to sing again but only as a baritone. Because of the dated mono sound of these recordings, only 4 fish are given.
NIELSEN: Orchestral Works: Complete Symphonies. Aladdin Suite. At the Bier of a Young Artist.2 Bohemian-Danish Folk Songs for String Orchestra. Clarinet Concerto.1 Cupid and the Poet (Orchestral Suite). “Helios” Overture. Pan and Syrinx.2 Paraphrase on “Nearer My God to Thee.” Romance for Violin & Orchestra.3 Serenata in Vano. Suite for String Orchestra. Symphonic Rhapsody. Woodwind Quintet. Chaconne, Op. 32.4 Drømmen om “Glade Jul.”4 Festive Prelude.4 5 Piano Pieces, Op. 3.4 Humoresque Bagatelles.4 Piano Music for Children & Adults.4 Suite, Op. 45.4 Theme and Variations.4 3 Piano Pieces4 / 1Anthony McGill, clarinetist; 2Rune Most, flautist; 3Malcolm Stewart, violinist; 4Anne Øland, pianist; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra; Douglas Bostock, conductor / Membran 233378
Overall, a terrific set of most of Nielsen’s orchestral works and a clutch of chamber music performances. The symphonies have even better renderings in the hands of Theodore Kuchar (see below), but by themselves Bostock’s performances are quite good, solid readings.
NIELSEN: Saul and David / Aage Haudland, bass (Saul); Peter Lindroos, tenor (David); Tina Kiberg, soprano (Mikal); Kurt Westi, tenor (Jonathan); Anne Gjevang, contralto (Witch of Endor); Christian Christansen, bass (Sanuel); Jørgen Klint, bass (Abner); Hanna Hjort, soprano (Abisaj); Susse Lissesøe, soprano (Young Maiden); Danish National R$adio Choir & Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Chandos 8911/12
Although Carl Nielsen wrote two operas, the only one that has achieved fame and a modicum of international success is the second, Maskerade. Unfortunately, this is the weaker of the two. The music is bouncy and frothy but not much more; by and large, it is pretty but junky. On the other hand his first opera, Saul and David (1902), is an absolutely brilliant, original and fascinating work, one of the greatest operas ever composed in a tonal style.
So why is Saul and David so disliked? Because the music is well-developed and densely structured, almost like a symphony. There are indeed arias, duets and scenes, but they are scarcely conventional in form (although several of them, especially the tenor arias for David, include ringing high notes); rather, the music is continuous within each act and, in fact, a great deal of the interest in the music is in the orchestration and choral writing. In a sense, then, Saul and David sounds more like a really terrific secular cantata rather than an opera based on a Biblical story, and to the average operagoer such a style is anathema. Where are we going to stop the show to applaud the singing of an aria if the music just keeps on going? And what kind of music is this that isn’t tuneful like pop or folk music?
Well, what kind of music it is is superb, and we must give great credit to Neeme Järvi for pulling the entire work together in such a brilliant fashion. Järvi hasn’t recorded much opera, so when he chose to apply himself to this work he fell back on his decades of experience as a concert artist, and it shows. From first note to last, this performance moves like a tornado, catching everyone and everything in its musical path, and happily most of the vocal cast is up to the challenge. The one singer who isn’t is basso Christian Christiansen as Samuel. This guy really stinks, folks, but happily Samuel—though important to the plot as the prophet who predicts everything—only dominates one scene in the first act although he does return as a ghost in the final act to let Saul know that the invaders are going to kill him. So why is he in this cast? Well, because this was a production of Danish Radio and Christansen was, at the time, THE established “star” bass of the Danish National Opera, which probably means that he had a pretty powerful agent. Anyway, that’s the reason it only gets 4 ½ fish.
The remainder of the cast is stupendous, their voices firm and, in the case of tenor Lindroos, soprano Kiberg and contralto Gjevang, really interesting singers. I wonder what happened to them on the international scene? Here, they contribute mightily to the ebb and flow of the opera by singing with a decent amount of interpretation but, more importantly, with great enthusiasm and musicality, which in this work is even more important. Perhaps this was another reason why the opera failed at it premiere, but one reason why it works so well here on record. And just maybe a reason for its failure was that David kills Goliath “offstage,” and nothing whips up an opera audience like a good battle scene!
The impact of this 1990 recording has not yet dimmed, but rather continues it radiant glow every time you listen to it. For a studio recording, it has the feel of a live performance, and I can pay it no greater compliment than that.
NIELSEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-6 / Janáček Philharmonic Orch.; Theodore Kuchar, cond / Brilliant Classics 94419 or 95932, a 13-CD set that also includes the music of Smetana, Dvořák & Shostakovich or available for free streaming on YouTube
No two ways about it, Theodore Kuchar’s recordings of these works with the Janáček Philharmonic are the benchmark performances against which all others—including Blomstedt’s performances with the San Francisco Symphony—must be judged.
NØRGÅRD: Siddharta / Stig Fogh Andersen, tenor (Siddharta); Aage Haugland, bass (Suddhodana); Anne Frellesvig, soprano (Kamala); Birgitte Frieboe, alto (Tara); Edith Guillaume, mezzo-soprano (Prajapati); Erik Harbo, tenor (Asita); Kim Janken, tenor (1st Counselor); Christian Christansen, bass (2nd Counselor); Poul Elming, tenor (Messenger); Tina Kiberg, soprano (Yasodhara); Minna Nyhus, alto (Gandarva); Danish National Radio Choir & Symphony Orch.; Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor / For a Change: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra / Gert Mortensen, percussionist; Danish National Radio Choir & Symphony Orch.; Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor / Dacapo 8.224031-32
Per Nørgard is still nearly unknown in the United States, and not much better known in England, but he is a visionary composer whose music is truly spiritual in a sense that Bruckner’s is not, as well as intellectually interesting which Bruckner most certainly is not. This performances of his Buddhist-inspired opera Siddharta is utterly riveting, as is the music, and the concerto for percussion and orchestra, For a Change, is far more substantial and less flashy than such works normally are.
NØRGÅRD: Symphony No. 7 / Danish National Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Dausgaard, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
NØRGÅRD: Symphony No. 8 / Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgårds, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Nørgard’s symphonies are sonic soundscapes that follow on the heels of what such early impressionists as Charles Koechlin and Karol Szymanowski were able to achieve, although the opening of the seventh symphony is surprisingly powerful. These are my favorite of them, and each performances is excellent in its own right.