Review: Nielsen: Maskarade - Schønwandt

Michael Schønwandt

Nielsen's singular and much-loved opera Maskarade is released as the first twenty-first century recording of the work, a very apt celebration by Da Capo of the composer's 150th Anniversary. Not surprisingly, its conductor, a Nielsen specialist of renown, is Michael Schønwandt, who has directed and conducted it more than anyone else. He got to know the opera when he was ten, and quickly learned every note by heart.

As early as the beginning of the 1890s the still youthful Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) played with the idea of writing an opera on the basis of Ludvig Holberg’s 1724 comedy 'Mascaraden' (Holberg was a Norwegian writer, essayist, philosopher, historian and playwright born in Bergen, whose works were extremely popular in Scandinavia). Nielsen made no progress on the project until some years later he met Wilhelm Andersen, who seemed ideal to produce a libretto for 'Maskarade'. A complex series of work sessions on the opera deferred the première to 11 November 1906. Nielsen used the time right to the end: the overture was finished only six days before the première. A further song for one of the female parts was added afterwards, and a number of other changes were made by Neilsen over the following years. 

These alterations and corrected errors are now included in a volume from the Carl Nielsen Project of the Music Department of the Royal Danish Library. Their new Full Score was used for this authoritative recording, and it is possible to download a set of the score in three sections of pdf format, together with supporting details of the score's history, free of charge from the Library.

Like many other Scandinavian literary and musical works, the libretto for Maskarade not only offers entertainment, but bridges between popular and elite art, as commentaries of past and present social life in Denmark. As such, it has been regarded as the Danish National Opera, and despite the rareness of performances it has very wide admiration. The plot has relatively little "action" in the form of Verdi and Puccini, but a good deal of conversation and discussion, in this case about the social effects of 'Change'. The inevitability of Death versus human enjoyment of Life is also presented, as is Love itself - albeit in a louch way, as one might expect from its 1724 period. 

The opera comique has a cast of 4 baritones, 2 bass, 4 sopranos and 7 tenors, plus a mixed voice chorus. Interestingly, not only is the cast heavily weighted in male singers, but the sopranos are given only a rather small proportion of the score. Throughout, Michael Schønwandt keeps an iron grip, particularly on the pacing of the sometimes quite complex interactions of soloists and choir. He also ensures that the many dances have rhythmic spring and lilt, and that there are plenty of major contrasts in both speed and dynamics as Nielsen's score demands.

The soloists are in top voice, several of them having played their parts a number of times previously, and all are clearly flooded with enthusiasm about performing specially for Nielsen's Anniversary. Their comical mocking voices and sneering descriptions of character friends are well done and amusing. It is immediately obvious that the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir are also fired up, keeping the listener in thrall throughout the three acts. The Overture, which has often been recorded on its own, is one of Nielsen's best orchestral pieces and is given a truly sizzling performance by Schønwandt. An orchestral Prelude to Act 2 sets the atmosphere of a misty evening while the clients await for the opening time for the controversial newly-setup "Pleasure House".; at the same time the music conjures the forthcoming love between hero Leonard and heroine Leonora. This Prelude alone could have been the slow movement of a symphony by Nielsen, exquisitely played and relished as it is.

Thankfully, the recording, at Danish Royal Koncerthuset with its superb acoustics is a delight. The soloists are fairly close and very well focussed in their positions across the sonic stage, and the orchestra too is wide and deep in perspective, with a immediate sound and exciting detail, all in an ideal, warm ambience provided by the Koncerthuset. Deep bass is plentiful. Multichannel mode of course gives the most immersive and natural experience, while the excellent stereo is more theatrical.

This is no doubt a momentous contribution to the 150th Nielsen Anniversary; a must for opera buffs and Neilsen collectors. It has a vividness that induces the imagination to visually picture some of the scenes, and, yes, Neilsen's views of humanity in many of its aspects are well-projected too. Unmissable.
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