Nielsen Saul and David

Author: 
Robert Layton

Nielsen Saul and David

  • Saul and David

While Scandinavia can boast a roster of world famous singers from Jenny Lind and Christina Nilsson in the last century down to Bjorling, Flagstad and Melchior in our own, it has produced few great operas. But in Saul and David we have one of them. From 1889 to 1905 Nielsen played in the second violins of the Orchestra of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, where he learned his operatic repertoire: he would have played in the first Danish performances of Falstaff and Otello, and his admiration for Siegfried and Die Meistersinger are well documented. Admittedly his relationship to Wagner was a little ambivalent but the years when he became the Royal Orchestra's conductor (1908-14) found him expressing eagerness to get to work on Tristan! Dating from the period immediately preceding the Second Symphony, Saul and David inhabits much the same world. It still remains unstaged at Covent Garden or ENO. Mind you, Maskarade has taken more than 80 years to reach us in the UK (Opera North mounted it last year) and one can never wholly set aside fears nowadays that when Saul and David does reach us, it will be set in Salford or Bradford and updated to the 1930s. So far record collectors have known it only in the 1972 English-language broadcast conducted by Jascha Horenstein with Boris Christoff as Saul, Alexander Young as David and Elisabeth Soderstrom as Mikal. Unicorn-Kanchana issued this in 1976 and transferred it to CD last year ((CD) DKPCD9086/7, 1/90). There was also a fine Danish broadcast made in 1960 under Thomas Jensen, no less, with Frans Andersson as Saul (Danacord—nla) but the present version supersedes both.
In his Carl Nielsen: Centenary Essays (Dobson: 1965) the late Jurgen Balzer quoted a diary entry Nielsen made about opera some years before he began work on Saul: ''The plot must be the 'pole' that goes through a dramatic work; the plot is the trunk; words and sentences are fruits and leaves, but if the trunk is not strong and healthy, it is no use that the fruits look beautiful''. His librettist, Einar Christiansen, certainly provided a strong 'pole', and in this splendid Chandos version we are at least able to hear it as both author and composer intended. However intelligent and sensitive the translation, something valuable is lost when we abandon the original language whether it be in Boris, Pelleas, L'enfant et les sortileges or for that matter, any of the Janacek operas—and the same goes for the two Nielsen operas.
It is on Saul that the opera really focuses: his is the classic tragedy of the downfall of a great man through some flaw of character and it is for him that Nielsen (and the splendid Aage Haugland) mobilizes our sympathy. Haugland's portrayal is thoroughly full-blooded and three-dimensional, and he builds up the character with impressive conviction. Peter Lindroos strikes me as every bit as well-cast as Alexander Young's David and finer than Otte Svendsen (Danacord), and Tina Kiberg need not fear comparison with her distinguished rival on Unicorn-Kanchana or, for that matter, Ruth Guldbaek on Danacord. (If only records existed of Flagstad in this role which she sang in Gothenburg.) There is some powerful choral writing, some of it strongly polyphonic (I am thinking in particular of the passage in Act 3 celebrating Saul's repentance: track 5 of disc 2), which has prompted some people to speak of it being like an oratorio. (A penny-in-the-slot reaction prompted, I suspect, as much by the subject matter as anything else.) I saw the opera staged in Copenhagen in 1954 and thought it worked well as musical theatre, the action being borne along effortlessly on the essentially symphonic current of Nielsen's musical thought. What is, of course, so striking about this piece is the sheer quality and freshness of its invention, its unfailing sense of line and purpose. No attempt is made at 'stage production' but thanks to the committed performers under Neeme Jarvi, the music fully carries the drama on its flow. Jarvi paces the work to admirable effect and the recording made in collaboration with the Danish Radio is well balanced and vivid in its detail. At last the gramophone has done justice to this radiant score.'

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