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Five-hundred and sixty-nine Years of Music

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
07/28/2011 -  
Carl Nielsen: Pan and Syrinx – Clarinet Concerto
Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella (Complete ballet music)

John Kruse (Clarinet), Tuva Semmingsen (Mezzo-soprano), Peter Lodahl (Tenor), Jochen Kupfer (Baritone)
The Royal Danish Orchestra, Michael Schønwandt (Music Director and Conductor)

M. Schønwandt (© Courtesy of the Artist)

What reader of ConcertoNet doesn’t revel in the glorious events of 1448? This was the year when both Guillaume (Billy) Dufay and Gilles Binchois were on the cusp of their half-century mark, with many a motet and mass to be written. 1448 was the year hen Signora Columbus gave her two-year-old bambino Christopher a tiny boat for his birthday, crooning that one day he would become a prosperous fisherman.

Sadly Christopher III, King of Norway, Denmark, Norway and Sweden died. But happily in that same year Christian I was crowned King of Denmark–giving His people the most wonderful of all gifts, the gift of music

The “orchestra”, he amassed for his Coronation contained two corps of trumpets and drums, and was the legendary start of the Royal Danish Orchestra. While one might suspect that such beginnings are more hagiographical than historical, today’s Royal Danish Orchestra made its debut last night, perhaps as a warmup for the Paul Ruders opera tonight.

Hearing them in Alice Tully Hall wasn’t quite fair, since large ensembles seem to be encroaching on the audience itself. But the Royal Danish Orchestra was not playing Bruckner or Mahler. Their sound under the enthusiastic conducting of Michael Schønwandt was that of a chamber group, their lightness (if not litheness) was ideal for the two works of Carl Nielsen, with its non-stop solo virtuoso work.

Most fascinating was that hearing the Royal Danish Orchestra perform Nielsen was like listening to the Vienna Phil play Brahms. One knows these orchestras are the direct heirs of the orchestras for which the music was written, and that, if anything can be considered authentic, this music comes close.

I recall visiting Nielsen’s home in rural Denmark, seeing on the wall his father’s trumpet and his own violin which he played with the Danish Royal Symphony. It was that heritage which made his “nature scene for orchestra”, Pan and Syrinx so delightful. A soft evocative cello solos, brilliant clarinet flurries, and some wild rhythms from the orchestra made this nine-minute work a kind of musical painting, but painted in pastel colors.

J. Kruse (© The Royal Danish Opera)

Pastel is hardly the word I’d use for John Kruse, the First Clarinet of the orchestra, playing Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto. He arrived on stage without tie or jacket, but radiating a Day-Glo Green shirt, almost as memorable as his playing.

Obviously Mr. Kruse is a fabulous technician, but he was obviously all too aware of the Nielsen heritage. Granted, the Concerto is not easy to hear. The four movements are merged into one, the fireworks phrasings can be mistaken for cadenzas, the structure is not simple.

But these things never are with Nielsen. What Mr. Kruse did was make the work seem almost simple. Yes, the clashes between clarinet and snare drum were momentarily violent. But somehow, Mr. Kruse’s ease with his instrument made those moments less than dangerous. In fact, so easy (not exactly placid) was the soloist the only later did one realize what a carnival of understated color did he create.

After the intermission, Stravinsky’s complete Pulcinella was given an unexpected performance. Awaiting the usual semi-seriousness of an 18th Century masque, one heard (after a nervous opening) a real drama, with several moderately fast sections taken at a sombre pace, as if Mr. Schønwandt was ready to disguise the bucolic poetry as Russian liturgy.

T. Semmingsen (© Courtesy of the artist)

The two male soloists were fine, but I was frankly bowled over by mezzo Tuva Semmingsen. She actually demonstrated the purpose of Pulcinella with each note. For the Contento forse vivere aria her voice could have been singing with a lute accompaniment. Soft, melodious, not pushing those “tormented” words. Only at the end did she offer–what seemed to be–a gentle pasquinade of 18th Century bel canto singing.

All her work, though, had that gentle moderation, the self-containment of an earlier era. Methinks Ms. Semmingsen might have soothed King Christian’s trumpets and drums, allowing, amidst the martial airs, a few moments of comfort and joy.

Harry Rolnick



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