Discovery is invariably fun, whether getting a scoop or stumbling onto something that slipped under the radar the first time out. This definitely falls into the latter camp, having appeared on the market a couple of years ago, but it screams out to become part of the canon, a masterfully recorded, emotionally rich collection of the Nielsen orchestral pieces that you’ve most likely never heard and quite possibly never heard of. The New York Scandia Symphony is simply one of the nation’s most adventurous orchestras, devoting a staggering ninety percent of their repertoire to either United States or New York premieres of works by Scandinavian composers. This cd is characteristic. Nielsen’s most familiar symphony is the widely played Fourth, “The Inextinguishable,” along with the fascinatingly voiced, call-and-response-laden Fifth. Yet the Danish composer wrote several other first-class works for full orchestra, collected here for the first time under the inspired direction of Dorrit Matson. It’s early 20th century romanticism, soaring, bright or lushly atmospheric, occasionally tinged with Eastern and Middle Eastern motifs.
The first three pieces, the Symphonic Rhapsody, An Evening at Giske and the Helios Overture share a robust melodicism that compares with anything Cesar Franck ever wrote. Also included are the crescendoing, darkly stately partita An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands and the subtly uneasy, balletesque Amor and the Poet Overture, written a year before the composer died and inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s doomed infatuation with the popular singer Jenny Lind. But the centerpiece is the Aladdin Suite, based on the iconic Adam Oehlenschlager novel that sought to appropriate the myth as a reaffirmation of early 19th century Danish identity. The Oriental Festival March, the blazing overture that opens it, works off one of the alltime great catchy hooks, right up there with the Peer Gynt themes and the 1812 Overture. South Asian and Arab influences are alluded to if not directly in the suspenseful Aladdin’s Dream and Hindu Dance which follow, the pace picking up with Prokofiev-esque deviousness in the Chinese Dance – like his protagonist, Nielsen gets around a lot here. The high point is the haunting, vertiginous Market Place in Ispahan, soprano vocalese whirling in counterrotation with booming timpani against a shrill choir of high woodwinds. After that, the explosive arabesques of the Prisoner’s Dance are almost anticlimactic. The suite ends in a crashing, demonic blaze of voice and orchestra with the Blackamoor’s Dance. That the ensemble was able to complete a recording-quality performance of such a dramatic work within the boomy confines of New York’s Trinity Church speaks volumes.
In addition to this cd, the New York Scandia Symphony has also released three previous cds: a warm collection of Nielsen concertos; a collection of sometimes generic, sometimes fascinating suites by Lars-Erik Larsson and an album of concertos by pioneering early Romanticist Bernhard Henrik Crusell, whose post-Viennese School adventures are on par with pretty much anything Schubert ever did. The New York Scandia’s summer 2009 season includes an ongoing series of Sunday afternoon quartet and quintet shows in Ft. Tryon Park in Washington Heights.