Although he is most highly regarded for his six symphonies, Carl Nielsen also composed a number of short orchestral pieces whose musical preoccupations place them as satellites around those larger works. Aside from two operas he wrote prolifically for the theatre, as did his Finnish contemporary Sibelius, and various instrumental items from these scores have found an existence outside their original dramatic context.
Of the shorter orchestral works, the most famous is the overture Helios (FS32) which Nielsen wrote in 1904, the result of a journey to Greece with his wife, the sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen. The chief inspiration was the sun rising and setting over the Aegean Sea, and it is this image that opens and closes the piece. Over undulating strings, divided horns sound in evocative polyphony, while upper strings and woodwind outline a melodic idea of burnished richness. This rises to a serene climax for full orchestra, from which fanfaring trumpets initiate a striding theme which returns later in the piece. After this first appearance, a graceful idea for woodwind ensues; then, after a further brass entry, strings begin a lively fugato which draws the full orchestra into a reprise of the striding theme and its associated fanfare. From here the music subsides into its initial calm, solo horn and woodwind musing on the opening motifs as lower strings effect a return to darkness.
Composed during 1907 and 1908, the tone poem Saga-dr�m (Saga-Dream, FS46) develops the idea of musical stasis in subtle and intriguing ways. At the opening, sombre yet serene strings evoke a mood of rapt contemplation, soon to be intensified by the addition of pensive brass and graceful woodwind arabesques. An animated motion now takes hold of the strings, over which brass continue as before; there ensues a piquant dialogue between pizzicato strings and woodwind, culminating in the magical passage where solo woodwind coalesce, over a held chord on double basses, in a cluster of unbarred exchanges, a notational feature which aroused much curiosity at the time. The strings and brass music heard earlier then returns to effect the briefest of climaxes, from which this attractive piece quickly withdraws beyond earshot, leaving as thoughtful yet elusive an impression as its title suggests.
Undoubtedly the finest of Nielsen�s shorter orchestral pieces is the tone poem Pan and Syrinx (FS87), composed during 1917 and 1918, immediately after the Fourth Symphony and three years before he began work on the Fifth Symphony [both Naxos 8.550743], whose radical approach to timbre and texture is anticipated in several respects. At the outset rustling strings and undulating flute aptly evoke the pastoral nature of the Greek myth, combining gentleness and agitation to a telling degree. Percussion, notably xylophone and tambourine, enter as the musical expression quickly becomes more animated, subsiding to leave cor anglais and glockenspiel alone in thoughtful uncertainty. Timpani and strings gradually make their presence felt as the tension gradually accumulates, with untuned percussion taking on an obbligato r�le as a brief but raucous climax is reached. The opening music returns and, beneath a shimmering dissonance on violins, a solo cello tapers away into nothingness.
Nielsen�s second opera Maskarade (FS39), composed during 1904-6 to a libretto by Vilhelm Andersen after the play by Ludvig Holberg, was a success at its premi�re in Copenhagen on 11th November 1906 and was soon regarded as the Danish national opera, a status it retains to this day. This comedy of deceit and mistaken identity frequently has a lightness of touch recalling Mozart, not least in the Overture, which functions as an effervescent curtainraiser akin to those of Le nozze di Figaro or Cos� fan tutte. It bursts into life with a theatrical flourish, beneath which the dancing main theme can clearly be heard. A more piquant melody is shared out between strings and woodwind, leading to a lively fugato for full orchestra and the climactic return of the main theme. This is capped by a frenetic coda, bringing the piece to a decisive close. By contrast the Prelude to Act 2 offers repose before the goings-on shortly to ensue. Its affectionate melodic contours and pastel-shaded scoring typify Nielsen�s expression at its most generous and warm-hearted.
Despite the success of Maskarade, Nielsen�s disenchantment with the workings of an opera house meant that he composed no more operas. Instead, he concentrated on incidental music for theatre productions, of which his score to Adam Oehlenschl�ger�s play Aladdin (FS89) is the most important. First heard in February 1919 at Copenhagen�s Royal Theatre (the commissioner six years later of Sibelius�s similarly lavish score for Shakespeare�s The Tempest), the elaborate nature of the production made it impossible for Nielsen�s music to be realised in the way he intended. Overcoming his initial chagrin, he extracted several orchestral items (notably from the extensive dance sequence in Act Three) for concert performance, and these were finally published as the Aladdin Suite in 1940. This begins with the Oriental Festival March, its minor tonality evoking a harsh splendour beyond the merely ceremonial. There follows Aladdin�s Dream and Dance of the Morning Mist, a rapt passage for strings, followed by the gently animated dance with its winsome instrumentation for flutes and violins. The Hindu Dance is a graceful number where woodwind engage in delicately wistful exchanges, and while the Chinese Dance is more spirited rhythmically, its harmonies are equally, and unmistakably, those of Nielsen. The Marketplace in Ispahan is the most famous number in the suite � on account of its superimposition of four different musical ideas, so as to evoke the sensation of sound coming from all sides of the market arena. The vividly dramatic Dance of the Prisoners is a reminder of the more descriptive passages in some of Nielsen�s symphonies, before the Negro Dance rounds off the suite in increasingly energetic abandon.
Very different in its expression is the incidental score for the play Cupid and the Poet (FS150), which received its first airing in Odense during July 1930 and is among Nielsen�s last major works, above all, for its Overture (not published until 1967). A brusque side drum stroke initiates a restrained dance, strings and woodwind engaging in harmonically astringent dialogue. Its contrapuntal rigour points to the Baroque influence at work on the composer�s late music, with the mid-point confrontation of side drum and clarinet equally a reminder of his modernist influences at this time. The whole piece encapsulates the unpredictable idiom that Nielsen pursued, often to the bemusement of listeners, during his highly productive last decade.
ReviewsThose curious about Nielsen but wanting for now to steer clear of the symphonies could hardly start in a better place. Nielsen fans need this disc even if they pass others by. As essential to the Nielsen collection as Chung's Bis symphonies (1, 2, 3, 5), Ole Schmidt's splendid symphony cycle on Regis, Bernstein's BMG-Sony recordings of numbers 3 and 5 and Ormandy of No. 6. - Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International, August 2005