Thomas Jensen Legacy Volume 15. © 2023 Danacord Records

CD Spotlight

Masterly Intuition

GERALD FENECH gives the thumbs up to Danacord's Thomas Jensen Legacy Volume 15

'... unfettered enthusiasm and emotional gusto.'


Danacord's Thomas Jensen cycle keeps driving on with huge success. This ultra historic Volume 15 focuses for the most part on one of the real milestones in Danish musical history: Saul and David, Carl Nielsen's groundbreaking opera. This work is considered one of Denmark's most important musical compositions for the theatre but is difficult to stage as the dramatic episodes are often separated by longer, less dynamic sequences. The choral scenes are certainly among the opera's highlights, but the music, which is both dramatic and lyrical, is free of any late Romantic effects, which might be the reason why the work has not gained wider popularity.

Listen — Nielsen: God is our witness (Saul and David Act III)
(DACOCD 925 CD2 track 24, 0:00-0:59) ℗ 2023 Danacord Records :

The music was composed rather slowly over a two-year period, partly in Copenhagen, partly when Nielsen was in Rome on an extended stay between December 1899 and June 1900. Completed in April 1901, the opera was submitted to the Royal Theatre for adjudication. The composer and conductor Johan Svendsen recommended the work should be performed at an early date, alluding to a 'highly interesting piece, bearing throughout the stamp of this independent gifted artist' who demonstrated 'clarity and assurance'. The premiere on 28 November 1902 was received with great enthusiasm, at least by part of the audience, but the critics wondered whether the work would attract as much interest in future productions. Indeed, there were only a few performances of Saul and David in Copenhagen during Nielsen's lifetime (1865-1931), and despite his own efforts to have it performed in Dresden and Vienna, it was not until November 1928 that it was staged abroad in Gothenburg, where according to the composer the opera was well received.

The four-act libretto by Einar Christiansen tells the story of Saul's jealousy of the young David, taken from the First Book of Samuel in the Old Testament. As is the custom with such stories, Christiansen added some more intrigue to spice up the plot.

In Act I, before the battle with the Philistines, King Saul is waiting for the prophet Samuel to arrive and offer sacrifice to God. Samuel does not arrive on time, so Saul offers the sacrifice himself. When the prophet arrives he denounces the King's actions and pronounces God's curse upon him. Saul repents, but Samuel remains resolute, throwing the King in despair. David soothes Saul with his singing, but also falls in love with Michal.

Abner interrupts David's singing at the start of Act II and announces the challenge of Goliath. Saul promises Michal's hand to whoever defeats the giant. David undertakes the challenge and succeeds. Saul immediately becomes jealous of the adulation David receives. This causes David to escape the King's anger by fleeing into the mountains.

At the start of Act III, all in Saul's camp are asleep. David and Abishai arrive unnoticed. David enters Saul's tent and takes Saul's spear and water container, to show he has been by the King but has not harmed him. David shouts from the hilltop and pleads for reconciliation but this is forestalled by Samuel's arrival, who before dying, anoints David as the new King of Israel, arousing afresh Saul's jealousy. David and Michal flee the wrath of Saul's anger.

In Act IV, Saul and Abner prevail upon the Witch of Endor to raise Samuel's spirit from the dead. Saul beseeches Samuel for help against the Philistines, but Samuel tells Saul that God has abandoned him and that all his sons will die before the day is out. In the ensuing battle Jonathan, David's friend, is mortally wounded. Saul despairs and falls on his sword. The people acclaim David as the new King, but David's heart is broken by the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

Listen — Nielsen: In thee now is Israel's hope! (Saul and David Act IV)
(DACOCD 925 CD2 track 39, 2:07-3:02) ℗ 2023 Danacord Records :

The substantial bonus is new to the Thomas Jensen discography: a first ever release of Spoon River Anthology, Danish settings by Helge Bonnén (1896-1983) of American poetry that reflects on the vicissitudes of life and death in a poor and rural community.

Listen — Helge Bonnén: The Hill (Spoon River Anthology)
(DACOCD 925 CD1 track 1, 6:52-7:46) ℗ 2023 Danacord Records :

Jensen's incisive performance and level of commitment get to the bottom of this masterpiece with masterly intuition, and both singers and players respond with unfettered enthusiasm and emotional gusto.

Do not worry about sound quality. It is very good, despite being recorded in 1960 from a live broadcast. This is a priceless addition to this Jensen cycle.

Copyright © 10 August 2023 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta



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