Nielsen Aladdin Suite Naxos 8.557164

Déjà Review: this review was first published in November 2005 and the recording is still available.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Aladdin Suite, Op 34 (FS89) (1919) [24:55]
Cupid and the Poet (Amor og Digteren), Op 54 (FS156) (1930) [5:33]
Saga-Dream (Saga-drøm), Op 39 (FS46) (1907-08) [9:48]
Helios Overture, Op 17 (FS46) (1904) [9:54]
Maskarade (FS39): Overture; Prelude to Act II (1904-06) [8:25]
Pan and Syrinx (Pan og Syrinx), Op 49 (FS87) (1918) [9:10]
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Niklás Willén
rec. 2002, Musikhuset, Sřnderberg, Denmark. DDD
Naxos 8.557164 [68]

I’m not going to mess around. This is a cracking disc on which an interesting and enterprising programme is splendidly delivered. I’m sorry to say that up to now I’d never heard of, much less heard, the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra or their Swedish Principal Conductor, Niklás Willén. On the evidence of these recordings, that’s my loss.

The programme gives us a generous slice of Nielsen’s theatrical music. The most substantial item, in terms of duration, is the seven-movement suite that Nielsen extracted from the incidental music that he wrote for Adam Oehlenschläger’s play, Aladdin. This is brightly coloured and highly enjoyable music, including an opening Festival March, played here with no little swagger. There’s a Hindu Dance, which sways gently and a Chinese Dance, the music to which doesn’t display much obvious chinoiserie but which is nonetheless infectious, especially when delivered as deftly as here. Of particular musical note is the movement in which Nielsen depicts the Marketplace in Ispahan. You might expect a brilliantly fast episode here, but in fact Nielsen illustrates the bustle of the market in a quite different but brilliantly original way. The music is actually quite slow moving, but he combines no less than four different themes, which compete against each other, adroitly suggesting the hubbub of a teeming marketplace. The suite concludes with a Negro Dance, which is all headlong excitement, the rhythms crisply articulated here. This is a splendid rendition of a suite of colourful and resourceful music.

The inclusion of two excerpts from Nielsen’s opera, Maskarade is timely for British listeners, as the complete work has recently been staged in London. The infectiously gay overture is quite well known as a concert item. It receives a vivacious performance here. Much less familiar, except to those who know the complete opera, is the Act Two prelude. It’s a gentle little gem, which Niklás Willén and his team play winningly. It was a splendid idea to follow the boisterous overture with this easeful piece, not least because it shows that the performers can play with sensitivity as well as with brio.

The final theatrical item is the overture to another venture by Nielsen into the world of incidental music for plays. Cupid and the Poet was completely new to me. In fact, I see that the overture remained unpublished until as recently as 1967. It’s a strange piece, inhabiting the rarified sound world of other late works such as the Sixth Symphony (1924-5), the Flute Concerto (1926) and the Clarinet Concerto (1928). Textures are spare and the music is somewhat astringent. It doesn’t sound much like you’d expect an overture to sound but, then, it’s a little difficult to evaluate the piece when shorn of the remaining incidental music.

We’re on much more familiar territory with the Helios Overture. This is a quite splendid piece and I was delighted to find that it’s very well done here. The magical (and difficult) opening is well realised and Willén builds the music impressively to a majestic climax before the main allegro. This strides along purposefully, as it should do. I did wonder in this work, which is the most heavily scored on the disc, if the string section was a little underpowered – there are 65 full-time members of the orchestra, though I suspect some reinforcements were called in for this programme. However, that’s a fairly minor cavil in the face of a performance that blazes with conviction. The principal horn player distinguishes himself in the poetic closing pages.

I was also impressed with the other two works in the programme. Saga-drøm is an elusive work. Here it gets a convincing and atmospheric reading. There’s some excellent work from the woodwind section, who are on fine form throughout the disc, and every time the quiet, pensive brass chorale appears it’s very well enunciated. Finally, Pan and Syrinx, a superb work but one that is very difficult to bring off, is splendidly done. Nielsen’s orchestral scoring is individual even by his standards in this work. Sample, for instance, the evocative cor anglais solo at 3’28”. What an inspiration to accompany this initially with just some tinklings on the glockenspiel! Later other instruments join in and this whole imaginative episode is most successfully handled.

My only “complaint” about this disc is that it’s had to wait three years to be issued. The playing of the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra is assured and committed, while Niklás Willén seems to have a real feel for this music. The sound quality was very good on my equipment, with all sections of the orchestra well reported. The notes are useful.

This disc offers an excellent introduction to the marvellous music of Carl Nielsen. However, established Nielsen enthusiasts should also add this splendid anthology to their collections without delay. Another winner from Naxos, which I recommend very warmly indeed.

John Quinn
see also Review by Rob Barnett

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