It is often said that no one but Americans can play Gershwin with the right 'feel', just as it is often said that no one but Scandinavians can play Nielsen right. I'm not sure either assertion is true but I must say that up to now my favorite collection of Nielsen wind chamber music has been that of a Norwegian group headed by Per Hannevold. And here we have the music played by a Danish group, the DiamantEnsemblet, who seem to have this music in their blood.
There are only two works here that at all well-known: the Serenata in vano and the Wind Quintet. The Piano Trio in G Major (1883), written when Nielsen was eighteen, sounds for all the world like it had been written a hundred years before; it is reminiscent of Mozart and his contemporaries. And it's not at all bad, either; it's neatly constructed and has some memorable melodies which are given a fairly typical classical development. It is the only work here played by musicians other than those of the DiamantEnsemblet, the Trio Ondine. The Fantasy Piece for Clarinet and Piano is even earlier, written in 1881 for two of Nielsen's fellow-students. Nielsen did not include it in his official list of compositions but it is charming and given a lovely performance by clarinetist Søren Elbo and pianist Jens Elvekjær. The Two Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano, Op. 2 (1889) are occasionally played in recital -- I remember hearing the Chicago Symphony's principal oboist Ray Still play them many years ago -- but they do not have much in the way of Nielsenesque fingerprints; they could have been composed by any of a number of his contemporaries. It was written for the principal oboist of the Royal Danish Orchestra the year that Nielsen himself joined it as a violinist. The second Fantasy Piece is a charmingly airy caprice. Canto Serioso for Horn and Piano (1913) was written as an audition piece when a new fourth horn was needed for the Royal Danish Orchestra. Orchestral fourth horn parts classically remain in the instrument's lower register and that is reflected in this short lyrical work, played elegantly here by Henning Hansen. There are three pieces from the 1920 incidental music for 'Moderen' ('The Mother', a play by Helge Rode): Tågen letter, for flute and harp; Børnene leger, for flute solo; and Tro og Håb spiller, for flute and viola. These are short lyrical, contemplative pieces that I would not have recognized as Nielsen, lovely though they be. Flutist Anna Dina Schick plays with beguiling tone.
Serenata in Vano, for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass is a seven-and-a-half minute work that depicts a serenade under the window of a desirable maiden. The music initially ardent and then mock-melancholy does not draw her out onto the balcony. The serenaders leave, not at all crestfallen, playing a little march for their own amusement. The work was composed as an occasional work and to Nielsen's surprise became one of his most popular smaller works. DiamantEnsemblet perfectly catch the half-serious, half-nonchalant efforts of the serenading musicians.
Nielsen's Wind Quintet, Op. 43 (1922) has achieved a secure place in the modern wind quintet repertoire. One is immediately able to identify it as Nielsen's from his characteristic rhythmic devices and instrumental color. The work is both serious and genial and Nielsen's usual wry humor is never absent for long. The performance here is perhaps more softly rounded than some; other groups tend to emphasize the work's quirkiness more, but the DiamantEnsemblet's approach has its own validity. They tend to emphasize the work's lyricism and underlying pensiveness. A valuable performance.