Opera Album Review: From Denmark with Love, Passion, Irony, and Much More — Works by Carl Nielsen and Helge Bonnén

By Ralph P. Locke

Carl Nielsen’s vivid biblical opera Saul & David, here paired with Helge Bonnén’s remarkable concert adaptation of poems from Spoon River Anthology.

Thomas Jensen Legacy, Vol. 15: Nielsen: Saul & David; Helge Bonnén: Spoon River Anthology

Vocal soloists (Nielsen) and actors (Bonnén), Danish Radio Symphony, cond. Thomas Jensen.

Danacord 925 (2 CDs) 130 minutes.

Classical music has thrived in many lands — not just as a performance art (Chopin recitals in Spain, Turkey, or China) but as a living tradition to which local composers bring fresh impulses.

Here is a CD album that reminds us of musical creativity in the relatively small country of Denmark. It contains the re-release of the historic first recording of Carl Nielsen’s immensely involving 1902 opera Saul og David (Saul & David) by Carl Nielsen, better known today for his symphonies; plus a startling work for spoken narrators and orchestra by a composer (and noted pianist) of whom I had never heard before, Helge Bonnén. I’ll start with the Nielsen opera.

Saul og David is based on stories in the book of Samuel that music lovers may know well from other musical treatments, such as Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas (which I’ll review here soon) and Handel’s vividly dramatic oratorio Saul. The libretto also incorporates some other biblical texts, such as psalms.

Pioneering Nielsen conductor Thomas Jensen (1898-1963).

The 1960 recording seems to have been released on CD before, but was not widely distributed, whereas one can easily find reviews praising subsequent recordings conducted by Jascha Horenstein (sung in English), Neeme Järvi, and Michael Schønwandt (video). A superb video production conducted by Sixten Ehrling and with English subtitles can now be seen on YouTube. The renowned Leif Roar plays the agonized King Saul.

In short, this opera, which, except in Denmark, has always existed at the very fringes of the repertory, is easier to get to know now than it would have been a few decades ago. The present re-release of its first recording is vol. 15 in a set of Danacord releases called “Thomas Jensen Legacy.” Jensen (1898-1963) was one of Denmark’s most important and active conductors and a pioneer performer of the works of Nielsen. He certainly shows his keen sense for Nielsen’s music here, in a performance full of energy but also, at appropriate moments, contemplative calm or deep sadness.

The opera is performed here in a shortened version first broadcast live from the Danish Radio studio in 1960. The voices come through clearly, but the orchestra is somewhat distant, unlike in Järvi’s remarkable recording on Chandos. Basses Frans Andersson and Odd Wolstad are Saul and Samuel, respectively, tenors Niels Møller and Otte Svendsen are Jonathan and David, soprano Ruth Guldbaek is Solomon’s daughter Mikal, and mezzo Inge Frey is the Woman (or some say “Witch”) of Endor. All sing clearly and more or less cleanly: the love duet for David and Mikal that ends Act 1 is mellifluous, rapturous, and memorable.

The composer Carl Nielsen (center), in Stockholm (1931), with the cast of his opera Saul og David.

No libretto is provided — just a synopsis. Fortunately, you can download the entire booklet of the Chandos recording, including essays plus the libretto in Danish and English. Also, YouTube now offers the entire Horenstein recording and shows on the screen the English words being sung. That recording is remarkable for the mesmerizing singing of the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff as the manic King Saul, though his English pronunciation is mushy.

Now that one can readily get to know Saul og David, what do we think of it? My first impression was that it was a marvelous musical experience — somewhat like listening to Nielsen’s symphonies (lots of colorful rhythmic writing for winds and brass and skittering strings), only with vocal lines laid on top. Even more gratifyingly, those lines are well written for the voice and memorable in their balanced phrasing (a bit like Puccini). The music is more individual, though not necessarily more dramatically effective, than that of the two other Danish operas from during Nielsen’s lifetime that I have reviewed here recently: Peter Heise’s 1878 Drot og Märsk and August Enna’s 1895 Kleopatra.

The 2-CD release is made much more valuable by its including the first release of a recording of a remarkable quasi-song cycle from the year 1937 by pianist and composer Helge Bonnén (1896-1983). Bonnén here presents 13 texts from the famous 1915 book of poems Spoon River Anthology, by American author Edgar Lee Masters. Some Arts Fuse readers may recall the adaptation that was done on Broadway (with much speaking and a bit of singing) by a splendid cast including renowned actress Betty Garrett and that was released in 1963 as a vivid and varied Columbia LP. (Garrett was “Hildy” in the film version of the musical On the Town that, alas, used only a few of Leonard Bernstein’s musical numbers.) The Columbia recording was re-released on CD, with three added tracks, in 2016. I just listened to it on Spotify, and was, by turns, delighted, amused, and touched.

In Masters’s widely loved book, each poem is the epitaph that a dead person in the (fake) town of Spoon River, Illinois, wrote—bluntly or sorrowfully—for her or his own tombstone. Here Bonnén has the texts read, in Ove Brusendorff’s translations, by Tudlik Johansen, Christen Møller, and Elith Pio. Texts are given in English, and I greatly enjoyed hearing how they sound, when delivered so zestily, in Danish.

Composer Helge Bonnén (1896-1983).

After the opening movement (underlying the poem “The Hill”), which is nearly eight minutes long, the rest are mostly about two minutes each. The musical moods are immensely varied, as befits the various characters —  surly or doleful, feisty or playful — buried in the Spoon River cemetery. The actors become quite specific with each new persona. Aspiring young opera and musical-comedy singers might learn something about characterization and the varied use of the vocal apparatus by listening to such skillful thespians! And Bonnén’s music is effective and accessible, occasionally showing an appropriate dash of folklike or jazzy coloration.

I would love to hear this Bonnén work performed live in English, with the original Masters poems substituted for the Danish versions. (A perfect task for any conservatory or music school, I should think!) A recording done that way, and in more modern sound, would be greatly welcome as well.

I wonder what other works Helge Bonnén created in his 87 years! Might some of them be just as communicative and treasurable? Certainly those same words apply to Nielsen’s relatively little-known opera as well. Clearly classical music has flourished in Denmark over the past century and more. And in how many other lands about whose cultural most of us know relatively little?

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). The present review first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here with kind permission.

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