Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto, Serenata in vano, and the Wind Quintet (premiere recordings)


Nielsen: (1) Clarinet Concerto, (2) Serenata in vano, (3) Wind Quintet
(1) Louis Cahuzac (clarinet); Royal Danish Orchestra/John Frandsen
(2) Aage Oxenvad (clarinet), Knud Larsson (bassoon), Hans Sorensen (horn), Louis Jensen (violoncello), Ludwig Higner (contra-bass)
(3) Royal Danish Wind Quintet: Aage Oxenvad (clarinet), Holger Gilbert Jesperssen (flute), Svend Christian Felumb (oboe), Knud Larsson (bassoon), Hans Sorensen (horn)
Clarinet Classics CC 0002 | Mono AAD

One of the best recordings to have come out of Berlin in recent years is an album of Nielsen's wind concertos and Quintet, with the Clarinet Concerto given a perky yet elegantly cool performance by Sabine Meyer. What would Aage Oxenvad have said? After all, this was the man who, aside from inspiring Nielsen's valedictory concerto and being the dean of Danish clarinettists, also viewed the clarinet as being a masculine instrument that women had no business playing. Indeed he likened the clarinet to a woman, by turns wild and passionate, gentle and somber, that needed to be dominated by a man. While Oxenvad's remarks would not win any awards today from the NOW, it was this curmudgeonly personality that inspired Nielsen, as much as the man's instrument, to write one of his greatest works and one of the finest for the clarinet. Svend Christian Felumb, Oxenvad's chamber partner, said of the work that " [it] was not only a concerto for clarinet, it was a concerto for Aage Oxenvad. [...] [O]ne may safely say that Carl Nielsen would never have written this work if he had not heard Oxenvad. [...] It tells everything about Aage and his clarinet."

Nielsen and Oxenvad were fast friends that shared much in common. Not the least of these was their shared pride of their humble roots--Nielsen the son of a house painter, Oxenvad from a sharecropper family. Both were proud that they had worked hard to acheive their fame and reknown in Copenhagen, but at the same time disdained the cosmopolitan nature of the big city. To the chagrin of Copenhagen's high society, both men retained their country accents and dialects, from Funen and Jutland respectively. Nielsen and Oxenvad also both shared a deep disdain and suspicion of virtuosity for its own sake and this is important in the concerto as much of the effect of this music is lost when it is made to sound so effortless. When greeting Nielsen after playing the concerto's private premiere, Oxenvad put his arm around his friend and told him "You must be quite a good clarinettist. How else did you find all the hardest notes to play?" Nielsen's music which is often so much about combat and conflict (think of the dueling timpanis in the Inextinguishable or the raucous snare drum in the Fifth Symphony) requires the sound of "dirt under the fingernails"; of being in control yet seemingly near the edge of losing it. If contemporary reports are to be trusted, Oxenvad had these qualities in spades ("He has made a pact with trolls", one reviewer exclaimed) so it is a tragedy that the man died before being able to record this concerto which captured his soul and the soul of his instrument so knowingly.

It was left to Frenchman Louis Cahuzac to play the work's recorded premiere, though thankfully Oxenvad was able to record some of his friend's music. They give us a tantalizing hint as to what an Oxenvad performance of the concerto must have sounded like. This is what we find here on a release from the Clarinet Classics label from earleir this decade, a very welcome album for all Nielsen enthusiasts. Cahuzac's recording has been released again on Dutton coupled with Emil Telmanyi's recording of his father-in-law's Violin Concerto, but the other two pieces are, to the best of my knowledge, unavailable elsewhere.

Oxenvad admired Cahuzac's artistry though he warned his own students against emulating his Gallic peer's style. I can't help but think of that as I listen to this recording because as handsome and sparkling as Cahuzac's playing is, his sound is out of step for what this work requires. Cahuzac is far too well manicured and cool to do justice to the concerto, though it is technically a very fine performance. John Frandsen's orchestral accompaniment with the Royal Danish Orchestra is excellent and further serves to highlight how mismatched Cahuzac is for this work. The orchestra and conductor play up the work's rustic humor while Cahuzac seems to sit in the background, a little confused as to where to go. No doubt Cahuzac should be thanked for recording the work at all and playing it as well as he did. But to hear what Nielsen really was looking for here try hearing the recordings of Ib Ericksson, Hakan Rosengren, and Kjell-Inge Stevensson available on Dutton, Sony, and EMI respectively. For a modern update on the Cahuzac approach, the aforementioned Sabine Meyer is superb and there are also excellent recordings with John Bruce Yeh and Richard Stoltzman. Others have praised Stanley Drucker's recording with Leonard Bernstein conducting, but that recording always leaves me feeling cold sounding like they both just phoned it in.

The Serenata in vano is Nielsen in a more relaxed mood. The work, explained the composer, was meant to depict a group of musicians serenading at the window of a beautiful young woman. The clarinet coos out its melancholy song attempting to woo the girl out. But she refuses to greet them. Still they try once more. Nothing. Finally, as if to say "to hell with this", they trot away from this reluctant lass to the strains of a cheeky march, thumbing their noses all they way. Thus your serenade in vain. Playing here are members of the Royal Danish Orchestra, Denmark's oldest musical ensemble and also one of Europe's oldest. Playing the part of the jilted serenader is none other than Aage Oxenvad himself and what a dark, sensual tone he coaxes from his instrument. A splendid recording of this winsome little work.

Nielsen's Wind Quintet has long been lauded as one of the 20th century's greatest works for winds. He was inspired to compose the work when speaking with Oxenvad over the phone one day and hearing the Royal Danish Wind Quintet rehearsing Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds in the background. Right there and then he began composing the work. Despite being a violinist, Nielsen had a great love for the sound of wind instruments as is evinced not only by his attempt to write a concerto for each of the Royal Danish Quintet members, but also by the prominent use of the winds and brass in his symphonies, very often favoring them over the strings. He once said in respect to the gestation and composition of the Quintet that he had attempted to "climb inside the instruments" and bare the unique souls of each one of them to the listener. He also enjoyed what he felt were the more "human" sound of the winds. As is to be expected, this is a near definitive recording of this glorious music, played with great love and knowledge by an ensemble that not only knew the man's music well, but counted the composer among their closest friends. There are other recordings of this great music to be heard, but this one is very special and still ranks as one of the best.

Nielsen wasn't as lucky as Sibelius in the 78 RPM era--no Beechams or Koussevitzkys championed his music. But his countrymen did their best to carry the name of their nation's greatest composer across the world. These recordings, especially the pre-war Serenata and Quintet are like peering through a window into another, forgotten world.

4 comments:

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  2. thanks a lot for this! I've been hoping to get a chance to hear this quintet again ever since I saw it in concert a little more than one year ago. And now you're giving me that chance :).

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