Nielsen: Cantatas / Holten, Knudsen, Andersen, Hedergaard
NIELSEN-BANGERT Cantata for the Opening Ceremony of the National Exhibition in Aarhus NIELSEN Music for Hans Hartvig Seedorf Pedersen’s Homage to Holberg. Helge Rode’s Prologue to Shakespeare: Ariel’s Song. 1 Cantata for the Annual University Commemoration • Bo Holten, cond; Ditte Højgaard Andersen (sop); Mathias Hedergaard (ten); 1 Palle Knudsen (bar); Jens Albinus (nar); Aarhus Cathedral Ch; Danish Natl Op Ch; Aarhus SO • DACAPO 8.226079 (65:52 Text and Translation)
Cantatas by Carl Nielsen? Yes! Surprised? So was I, and I’m sure you’ll be too. One reason they aren’t known is that they were composed for specific celebratory functions whose initial presentation was interrupted by speeches, cheering, polka bands, more speeches, and lots of drinking. Not exactly an atmosphere conducive to great art. Add to that the fact that Nielsen didn’t want to compose some of them, had to work with an over-verbose librettist in one (and assigned half the composition duties to one of his pupils, Emilius Bangert), and carried on a running argument with the committee that commissioned it over the libretto of another, and you can well imagine that these aren’t among the composer’s best works.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that they’re bad pageant music—certainly not as bad as Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, which the composer practically laughed at until it turned out to be a really popular money-maker—but the music is only occasionally interesting because the texts are only occasionally interesting. In the first cantata, the Nielsen-Bangert collaboration written in 1909, the most interesting piece by far is No. 4, the one that the two composers split pretty much down the middle (Nielsen wrote the first 117 bars, Bangert the rest). Bangert’s other contributions, Nos. 2, 3, and 7, are by no means “bad” music—the older composer supervised his pupil’s compositions and possibly made suggestions—but they lack character and originality. It’s the age-old battle between craft and art.
The second cantata on this album is in fact the last one composed, in 1923. This is mature Nielsen, and since he had a strong affinity for Holberg anyway, having set his text for the opera Maskerade to music almost 20 years earlier, his heart was really in it. The beginning is not promising—it starts with a pompous brass fanfare in the same vein, and even the same key, that ended the last piece of the previous cantata—but it soon develops into interesting music. Nielsen himself said, “It is … a shame that this music is only for this particular occasion, but it is constructed in such a fashion that it can be performed repeatedly and in other circumstances [emphasis mine].” The first movement features a quartet of Muses; here, soprano Andersen is joined by soprano Eline Denice Risager and mezzos Birgitte Mosegaard Pedersen and Bolette Bruno Hansen. The second soprano and mezzo are not terribly good, but they get by. The second movement features a baritone solo; the third is purely choral.
This is followed by one excerpt, a tenor solo, from a cantata celebrating the tercentennial of Shakespeare’s death (1916). It is so isolated because it was published and performed separately after the event, primarily by Danish tenor Anders Brems. It’s a very nice piece that, unfortunately, is sung by Hedergaard with unsteady tone.
The Cantata for the Annual University Commemoration , written in 1908, is the only one of Nielsen’s cantatas written for a recurring occasion. It is one of the most thoughtfully composed, and most cantata-like in alternating sung recitatives accompanied by piano with full choral-orchestral passages. Again, ignoring the text, this is music that could be performed to other texts for other occasions. There is an unusual touch of harmonic darkness to the music of the second number, where Nielsen also cleverly integrated the piano used in the recitative into the orchestral fabric; during the second recitative, the piano’s role expands into almost song-cycle-like accompaniment. This is a truly inspired bit of writing. Toward the end of the movement, the piano’s role changes again, accompanying four horns in concerto fashion before the chorus returns, then remaining as a prominent instrument along with the full strings. A slow tempo, muted violins, and ostinato bass create a mysterious mood in No. 3.
What amazed me the most about these works, particularly the last two, which are pretty good and original music, is the fact that in each case Nielsen was forced to work on a short deadline, barely more than two or three weeks. His lack of interest in the Aarhus cantata undoubtedly led to his creating the shallowest music. As to the performances, they are absolutely first-rate except for the aforementioned unsteadiness of tenor Hedergaard and two of the lady Muses. Andersen has a very light-toned, pretty Bach-Mozart-type soprano voice. Although baritone Knudsen also shows some signs of unsteadiness, he is generally very good. Diction is crystal-clear. Both the Aarhus Choir and Orchestra and the Danish National Opera Chorus are rock-solid, transparent in texture, and firmly committed to giving the best performances they can. Conductor Holten walks a fine line between creating excitement commensurate to the occasions in question and delivering excellent, well-contoured performances, and he succeeds handsomely in this task. And, happily, the sonics are crystal-clear, no muddiness of sound. If you can ignore the bombast of the first cantata, then, this is a worthy addition to your Nielsen collection.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Catalog Number: 8226079
Composer: Carl Nielsen
Conductor: Bo Holten
Performer: Birgitte Mosegaard Pedersen, Bolette Bruno Hansen, Ditte Andersen, Eline Denice Risager, Mathias Hedegaard