Nielsen is, of course, primarily known to non-Danes as the composer of six marvelous symphonies, and there is no dearth of recordings of the whole set of them. But there aren't all that many recordings of his non-symphonic orchestral music except for perhaps the two most popular of them -- the overture to his comic opera 'Maskarade' and the evocative 'Helios Overture.' Those two works anchor this CD: the Maskarade Overture begins the disc, and Helios closes it. One is rarely likely to hear such ebullient high spirits in the Maskarade Overture. Thomas Dausgaard, who has to be considered one of the hottest conductors around these days, gets his Danish National Symphony Orchestra to play it like the exuberant pièce d'esprit that it is. And it is followed by the equally exciting 'Cockerel's Dance' from the same opera. As for the 'Helios Overture', I have always thought it one of Nielsen's greatest inspirations, describing musically as it does the sun's course through the heavens from dawn to dusk. Did you know that early afternoon is ushered in by an exciting fugue?
But it the musical contents in between 'Maskarade' and 'Helios' that makes this disc all the more special. There is the prelude to 'Sir Olaf He Rides', from incidental music to Drachmann's play, a genre which engaged much of Nielsen's efforts during the years that he was associated with the Royal Danish Theater first as violinist and later as music director. The piece evokes the Fairyland of the play with grace and craft.
Following this is a suite taken from Nielsen's very early (1893, rev. 1899) suite 'Snefrid', again incidental music for a theatrical production. It includes a jaunty prelude, a yearning andante, another depicting sleep (or perhaps dreams), a funeral march and a postlude. The prelude to Act II of Nielsen's opera 'Saul and David' is full of conflict and dissonance -- it precedes the scene where David plays for Saul and a messenger brings news of the depredations of the giant, Goliath. Dausgaard's talent for maintaining great beauty while limning tension is in evidence here.
The worthy but rarely heard ten-minute 'Rhapsodic Overture: An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands' was written near the end of Nielsen's life, after he'd finished his sixth and last symphony and in his most advanced idiom. In three sections, it paints a tone picture of a sea voyage to the isolated Faroes, a Danish possession, in the North Atlantic. It includes a quiet passage, not without its apprehensions, in which the ship sets off. One hears seabirds, the majestic roll of ocean waves that become more and more turbulent, the rising winds and a terrifying storm. There is a welcome admixture of brash and naïve folksong along the way; perhaps the sailor's singing to calm their fears? Arrival in the Islands is greeted with both pride in the crew's accomplishment and relief at reaching a safe haven. This is a startlingly effective piece of tone painting.
The Prelude to Act III of 'Willemoes', a play about a Danish naval hero, is a quiet interlude describing the protagonist's love for a young girl. 'Pan and Syrinx' (1917-18) occasionally figures on concert programs outside Denmark. It depicts Pan's attraction for the nymph Syrinx, a story in Ovid's 'Metamorphosis', and the music is one of the first by Nielsen to use a large percussion section (later to figure so strongly in such works as the Clarinet and Flute Concertos), surely influenced to some extent by Stravinsky's ballet scores, although used in a style all Nielsen's own. There are also echoes of Debussyan impressionism here. One particularly striking instrumental effect is toward the end of the piece where high strings play what amounts to tone clusters during which they gradually eliminate any vibrato.
The next to last selection (just before 'Helios') is Nielsen's last orchestral work, the 1930 overture 'Cupid and the Poet' written to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. A light-hearted work, it is nonetheless in Nielsen's spiky late style. This is one of Nielsen's works I don't recall ever hearing before and I was quite taken by it.
Once again I must comment on how wonderful these performances are. They are enhanced by extremely rich and vibrant sound on both the plain stereo and SACD layers. I for one would love to have a follow-up disc in which Dausgaard and his orchestra play some of Nielsen's other non-symphonic works including such pieces as the 'Saga-Drom' and 'At the Bier of a Young Artist'. Oh, and also the suite from 'Aladdin.' They have all been recorded before, but this conductor and ensemble seem to have real insights into Nielsen's sound world.