In 1921, Carl Nielsen heard the Copenhagen Wind Quintet for the first time and was bowled over by the sheer musicality of their playing. The following year he composed a wind quintet for the group, which ends with a set of variations that depict the characters of the members in turn, and announced that he planned to write a solo concerto for each of them, too. But he only managed to complete two of those concertos, the work for flute in 1926 and for clarinet two years later, before his death in 1931. They were his last large-scale orchestral pieces, and continue to show the influences of modernism that had already appeared in his final symphony, the Sixth.
Together with the much earlier violin concerto, those concertos define the classes in the Carl Nielsen International Competition, held every three or four years in Odense, near to the composer’s birthplace on the Danish island of Funen. The flute and clarinet winners in the most recent competition in 2019 are featured on this pair of portrait discs with the Odense Symphony Orchestra and conductor Anna Skryleva. As well as the Nielsen concerto, the French flautist Joséphine Olech plays concertos by Theodoor Verhey and Jean Françaix, while the Slovenian Blaž Šparovec includes works for clarinet and orchestra by Debussy, Lutosławski and Copland alongside his Nielsen performance.
Both are clearly very fine woodwind players, who are given punchy, characterful support by Skryleva and the Odense SO in scores in which Nielsen often makes the orchestra an equally important protagonist. Olech gets the neurotic solo flute writing, and its reactions to the rude intrusions from a solo trombone, spot on, and Šparovec portrays the irascible character of the clarinet in its duels with the snare drum in the orchestra vividly, too. There are already fine versions of both concertos available on disc, some more vivid, some more genteel, but these don’t suffer by comparison at all.
This week’s other pick
Edward Gardner’s latest Chandos release with the Bergen Philharmonic is devoted to Sibelius. It’s a slightly haphazard collection, with two of Sibelius’s finest achievements alongside less significant pieces, including the early Rakastava and the suite from his incidental music to Pelléas and Mélisande. But the performances of the two great tone poems, Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra, and Tapiola, his final masterpiece, dominate the disc. Gardner’s Tapiola is less bleak and brooding than some readings, but still fabulously atmospheric, and he’s equally convincing in evoking the mysterious atmosphere of Luonnotar, in which the soloist is the current flavour-of-the-month among dramatic sopranos, Lise Davidsen; she certainly has all the necessary vocal heft for this creation-myth scena, without ever quite conveying the sense of wonder that runs through it.