CARL NIELSEN Complete Organ Works: Festival Prelude to the New Century; 29 Short Preludes; 2 Posthumous Preludes; Melody; Commotion; RUED LANGGAARD: Ascension Day; “Buried”; Harvest Prelude; Funeral of Axel Gade; Wedding March – Friedhelm Flamme – CPO

by | Nov 30, 2010 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

CARL NIELSEN Complete Organ Works:  Festival Prelude to the New Century; 29 Short Preludes, Op. 51; 2 Posthumous Preludes; Melody; Commotio, Op. 58; RUED LANGGAARD: Ascension Day; “Buried”: First Sunday after Trinity; Harvest Prelude; At the Funeral of Axel Gade; Wedding March – Friedhelm Flamme – CPO multichannel SACD 777 414-2, 67:40 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:

Carl Nielsen came to compose for the organ late in life. So while the copious music he wrote in most other genres would each fill a number of discs, his organ compositions amount to a little over fifty minutes of music, hence the inclusion of short works by his compatriot Rued Langgaard. In fact, of the pieces by Nielsen on this disc, the tiny Festival Prelude is a transcription of a work originally written for piano and published in January of 1901. So it represents a more optimistic and traditional phase of his compositional career, differing a good deal from the other more austere and modern-sounding works of the late twenties and early thirties.

Nielsen’s interest in writing for organ was piqued by a request from organist Johannes Hansen for music that could be played in church services. To prepare himself for the challenge, Nielsen studied works by prominent organists of the day, including Peter Thomsen, organist of Simeons Kirke in Copenhagen. The result was the 29 Short Preludes (1929). After their composition, Nielsen wrote a brief self-critique in which he voiced his approval of the principles for writing sacred organ music outlined by Thomsen. These principles “emphasized linear flow and impersonality, as opposed to periodic phasing, modulation and personal feeling, and Nielsen declared that he would adhere closely to them if he ever returned to the genre.”

Comparing the Preludes to the organ works written afterward – including Nielsen’s last major composition, the twenty-two-minute-long Commotio (1931) – I can hear the difference in emphasis. Of course, the Preludes are all short works, the longest just over a minute and a half in length, but they have that quirky turn of the phrase and melodic-harmonic contour that I’m familiar with from the late orchestral works, such as the Sixth Symphony and the last two concertos—and that I find captivating, I should add. The Posthumous Preludes and Commotio, on the other hand, are closely-argued polyphonic works, the fugal writing in Commotio being especially breathtaking in its complexity. But breathtaking isn’t always the same as endearing, of course, and I find the severe chromatic style that Nielsen cultivates here is worthier of respect than of loving admiration. Masterwork it may be, but it’s also a hard listen, so be prepared to concentrate and put away prejudices when you come to this music.

Listening to the works of Rued Langgaard on the present disc, you might be shocked to compare his Music of the Spheres, an astonishingly modern work written during Langgaard’s daring compositional phase of the nineteen-teens. It anticipates many of the trends that marked avant-garde music in the twentieth century. By the twenties, Langgaard had renounced modernism, and he blamed Nielsen’s pioneering trends for wrecking Danish music (and putting his own music in the shadow). After many years of rejection, Langgaard finally got his first permanent position as cathedral organist in the town of Ribe. All the works on the current disc except At the Funeral of Axel Gade were written during his tenure there. Ascension Day and “Buried”: First Sunday after Trinity are linked to the Church calendar and tell the story of Christ’s Ascension and of Dives and Lazarus respectively. All are in Langgaard’s more typical neo-Romantic style; the melodies are attractively diatonic, the harmonies piquant, with a bit of chromaticism—but only a bit. There’s nothing here to challenge the ear—or deeply engage the intellect, it must be said.

So these two Danish masters make strange disc-fellows, and the CD adds up to less than a totally satisfying package. Friedhelm Flamme, whose previous work on CPO has been praised, seems to have the measure of all this music, though the Festival Prelude appears to lumber more than a bit compared with the piano version. Then again, that’s probably a function of the transcription rather than of the performance. Certainly, Flamme’s playing in the coruscating Commotio is commanding in the extreme. He sounds like he has a couple of extra fingers at his disposal. CPO’s recording of the Mülheisen organ at the Church of Anastasius and St. Innocentius in Bad Gandersheim is very fine as well, though this music doesn’t show off the swell organ as Romantic French music naturally does.

If the program appeals, I believe you won’t be disappointed by the performances or the sound. But I must say that both these composers speak to me more forcefully in other genres.

— Lee Passarella

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