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Nielsen's Hall of Mirrors

So far, we have heard music in the Southern European tradition, braided with warm emotion, designed for the salon, dining room or sociable concert. Yet from the same decade come works looking forward, with unique vision, to a more objective future. The first volume of the Oslo String Quartet's survey of Nielsen's quartets contains the second published pair of these works which date from 1898 (Op.14, E flat major) and 1906 (F major, Op.19), though a revision of the latter was made around 1919 preceding the work's re-publication as Op.44 and this is the version under consideration here. Both of these pieces are from the earlier years of Nielsen's maturity and exhibit that style which leads so easily to us thinking of him as an enigma. Whereas the main European musical branches at this time were shaped like the prongs of a pitchfork, with the Romantic tradition on one side, and the chromaticism which was to explode into the shepherded chaos of atonality on the other, Nielsen left this model altogether to become an individual voice; these quartets are ample demonstrations.

The two works are, of course, strongly tonal. However, while the disc of Italian music might suggest an environment of familiar rooms and comfort, the Nielsen takes the listener into a hall of mirrors where everything is visible, but often seen from many angles at once, some of them unexpected. The music is entirely approachable, full of melody, but reveals more about the nature of music itself than most late-19th century chamber works.

Strong characterisation marks each movement on the Nielsen disc; within the first forty seconds of the finale of the Op.14 Quartet (Allegro coraggioso - Allegro molto: click here to listen) two distinct ideas, marked by equally distinct playing from the ensemble, begin their journey. Likewise, the second movement of the Op.44 Quartet, marked Adagio con sentimento religioso (click here to listen), with its chorale-like opening, resembles nothing that has gone before. It is followed by a scherzo (Allegretto moderato ed innocente) that succeeds in being both serious and playful simultaneously (click to listen).

Despite the later revision of the F major Quartet, its language is sufficiently close to that of the E flat major Quartet to render this coupling satisfactory to a listener not wanting upsets in the course of the disc. The difference in string tone produced by the Oslo String Quartet and the Quartetto Puccini causes the ensembles to sound further than half a continent apart; the Italian players' instruments effuse warmth which the Norwegians (either through playing or recording technique) do not. But cold water is refreshing, as Nielsen himself suggested; a philosophy that is seen to be effective on this disc.

I am surprised that the recording's producer did not request re-takes of at least three passages where a minor slip of intonation risks obscuring an important tonal turning-point. But, other than noticing this, I have no complaint; on a stage, these performances would be remembered only for the good they bring which, in the end, remains the overall impression of this disc.

Carl Nielsen,
String Quartets, Vol. 1 (E flat major, Op.14; F major, Op. 44)
The Oslo String Quartet
Producer: Krzysztof Drab
Total time: 57.01
Naxos 8.553907


Giacomo Puccini and Alfredo Catalani,
Music for String Quartet (Puccini: early works, three minuets, Crisantemi; Catalani: two occasional pieces, String Quartet in A)
Quartetto Puccini
Producer: uncredited; Engineer: Mike Cox (Floating Earth)
Total time: 73.23


 Copyright © John Hayward-Warburton, May 6th 1999

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