Carl Nielsen had an interest in the organ for many years and as early as 1913, inspired by a visit to Denmark by the famous German organist Karl Straube, he had the notion of composing a Fantasia for the instrument but his life was so full then that he never proceeded with the idea. It was not until 1929 that the organ began to take a significant part in Nielsen’s composing and he began his association with it by writing a series of brief Preludes for church use. It is good to have the opportunity to hear all twenty-nine, but it was sensible of Dacapo to put this collection of into four groups, interspersing them with six songs presented as three pairs. Bine Bryndorf brings great imagination to her readings and is inventive in her use of registration so that the ear is provided with a variety of colours. It should be remembered however that these works are “for organ or harmonium” so there are no adventurous pedal parts. The length of each Prelude rarely exceeds a minute but within them there is much variation of mood and each is well-worth attention; the final one is reminiscent of J. S. Bach, a suitable conclusion to the sequence. Three further pieces are presented: one dark composition entitled Melody, which Nielsen decided not to include in the set, and two peaceful Preludes from two years later.
Commotio is on a different scale and the composer’s last major work. It was completed on 27 February 1931 and gives the strongest possible reason for Bryndorf to use the organ at Nikolaj Kunsthal because the instrument was inaugurated on the same day. The form of Commotio is clear-cut: a modern version of the concerto grosso in four continuous movements alternating slow-fast, the two fast ones being fugues. It is no mean feat to successfully put over the thematic strands in the forceful opening Adagio which is full of rushing semiquavers. I admired Georg Fjelrad’s 1953 version, reissued in Danacord’s 30-CD Nielsen on Record set, yet a contemporary review (in The Record Guide) described the opening as “a muddling welter of sound.” Bryndorf hurls the fierce harmonies at the listener with huge force over a comforting long-held pedal note while achieving the utmost clarity. Throughout her reading, carefully considered registration represents the essence of interpretative success. This is never comfortable music and although most of the components of Nielsen’s style are evident, including a folk-like beginning to the second fugue, the usual element of humour does not feature. I recall reading Robert Simpson’s description – he analysed it as being in symphonic form – a helpful aid in following Nielsen’s challenging musical argument. Aided by superb recording, the final pages make a thrilling sound and for all the mixture of manuals and pedals the melodic lines shine through – and what a magnificent die-away at the end.
The remainder of this carefully planned programme features the Festival Prelude for the New Century (1901) a powerful work for piano. At the top of the score is the instruction ff stolt, pompøst (fortissimo proud, with pomp) and in this arrangement by the great organist Finn Viderø it makes an impressive opening track. The vocal items are from Nielsen’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1913-1915); the combination of baritone and organ is very appropriate. Judging from the rhyming English translations, the texts present a similar philosophy to that of the more sentimental examples of English hymns of the Victorian era. Nielsen takes the serious words lightly – especially when he uses a cheerful melody to accompany ‘Et helligt liv...’, the opening words are “A holy life, a blessed death / Will fondly meet each other”. Torsten Nielsen’s lyrical voice is placed far-left (one can imagine him singing from the choir stalls in church). It is ideally clear and rings impressively around the generous acoustic of Nikolaj Kunsthal as part of this interesting anthology of Nielsen’s lesser-known music.