Nielsen: Maskarade; Saul and David

COMPOSERS: Nielsen
LABELS: Danacord
WORKS: Maskarade; Saul and David
PERFORMER: Soloists, Danish RSO & Choir/Launy Grøndahl, Thomas Jensen
CATALOGUE NO: DACOCD 357/9 ADD mono
Pioneering conductors aren’t always revealing interpreters and although Hermann Scherchen’s premiere recording of Les troyens à Carthage has its moments, the playing is too lacklustre and the singing too variable to challenge either Davis (Philips) or Dutoit (Decca). Tahra’s Scherchen series boasts more valuable jewels than this (riveting Mahler and Beethoven, for example), though it’s interesting to hear Berlioz’s marvellous score spiced with old-style French orchestral sonorities.

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Similar claims might be made on behalf of a fascinating Ravel compilation where significant early recordings of ‘the last six compositions’ include a lolloping Boléro (another premiere) that speeds alarmingly for the last 78rpm side, a snappy though occasionally fallible Piano Concerto from Marguerite Long, an heroically confrontational Left Hand Concerto with Alfred Cortot and an eloquent rendition of Don Quichotte à Dulcinée featuring baritone Martial Singher.

The transfers are superb, far better in fact than on a welcome compilation of Walter Gieseking’s pre-war Debussy recordings. As it happens, EMI has just released Gieseking’s much-praised Fifties set of the virtually complete piano works, but these sonically challenged predecessors are invariably lighter, swifter, more fanciful and rather less atmospheric than their fêted predecessors. Some timings are identical and yet ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ contrasts 2:45 minutes (1938) against 3:51 (1953). You could as well be listening to two different pianists, but turn then to Olga Samaroff and ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ comes and goes in a mere 3:38.

Pianist Olga Samaroff, a strong player, married Leopold Stokowski (whom she helped catapult to fame) and can be heard on the wing in ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’, Griffes’s The White Peacock and the ubiquitous Malagueña by centenary birthday-boy Ernesto Lecuona. It’s very much the sort of thing you might expect from a seasoned Stokowskian, but would you expect to hear fiery world premiere recordings of David Diamond and William Schuman from a ‘High Priestess of Bach’? Probably not, and yet the young Rosalyn Tureck (a Samaroff pupil) shows formidable prowess in Diamond’s grandly gesturing First Piano Sonata and Schuman’s upbeat Piano Concerto, both of them first airings and tangible proof of this great musician’s astonishing virtuosity.

Tureck’s programme – not one for hi-fi devotees, I’m afraid – also includes the US premiere of two attractive Studies by Luigi Dallapiccola, an Italian radical who flirted with 12-tone techniques while the ageing Pietro Mascagni helped conserve a bel canto status quo. He had even composed a Canto del lavoro, presumably for Mussolini, and you can hear it for yourself on a fascinating (and superbly transferred) CD that shows Mascagni to have been a fairly sombre interpreter both of his own music and of Rossini’s William Tell Overture.

Toscanini’s Tell (1939) beats Mascagni’s to the post by two minutes, but pan back to his La Scala years and tempos relax considerably. Compare the Minuet from Mozart’s great E flat Symphony as heard at La Scala in 1920 with the NBC broadcast of 28 years later and it’s rather a case of stodge versus stress. Not the Maestro at his best, I have to say, though other items – splendid Respighi and Pizzetti, especially – sound rather fuller in tone than on a rival mid-price RCA transfer.

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Toscanini played second cello in the first performance of Otello, whereas Carl Nielsen sat among the second violins for the Copenhagen premiere of the same work. Nielsen’s own operas – Maskarade and Saul and David – are by turns joyfully uninhibited and searingly dramatic. How splendid, therefore, to welcome well-sung, good-sounding radio broadcasts of both works under, respectively, Launy Grøndahl (1954) and Thomas Jensen (1960). Here one encounters idiomatic conducting by two of the composer’s most outstanding early exponents – pioneers who really had got the musical message.