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The first recording since 1964 of CFE Horneman’s Aladdin has revealed an epic opera that combines lyrical and dramatic vocal writing with masterful orchestration

One of the few pieces of national romantic music from Denmark to have found its way around the world is an overture by Christian Frederik Emil Horneman (1840-1906) titled Aladdin. It is a thrilling ten-minute orchestral ride through the story made famous by Antoine Galland, encompassing Beethovenian insistency, Schumannesque momentum and a sprinkling of impressionistic magic. It is, says the Danish conductor and music director of the Montpellier Opera, Michael Schønwandt, ‘one of the true masterpieces in Danish romantic music’.

Horneman wrote the overture in the mid-1860s while living in Munich. It was quickly taken up by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, where the composer, like so many others from Scandinavia, had travelled to study. After that, Horneman’s life back in Denmark became an uphill struggle marred by family problems, failed enterprises and creative frustration.

Aladdin, though, would remain by his side. For the next two decades, the composer strove to complete an epic opera to follow the overture. He eventually submitted the complete score to the Royal Danish Theatre in early 1888, where it was accepted for its musical qualities but shelved after perceived problems with librettist Benjamin Feddersen’s handling of the story.

Then, an emergency. In the autumn of 1888, the theatre found itself in sudden need of a new work to mark the jubilee of King Christian IX. Music staffled by Johan Svendsen pulled Horneman’s score down from the shelf, and in the space of six weeks concocted a production – frantically copying parts, requisitioning scenery and teaching musicians. ‘They threw it on, and it was a shambles,’ says Schønwandt. ‘Horneman was devastated; this was his life’s work.’

It would be another 14 years before things came good for Horneman’s Aladdin. Four years before he died, the Royal Danish Theatre had another go at the piece, mounting a decent staging in 1902 that ran for 18 performances. Among the second violins in the pit was Carl Nielsen. Schønwandt is adamant that Nielsen referenced elements of Aladdin in his own operatic masterpieces – the flute solo in Maskarade and the choral writing in Saul og David (the latter first staged in 1902).

Those comparisons were made easy by a fluke of timing. At the end of November 2020, Schønwandt was conducting the last session of an epic 13-day project to record Aladdin for the first time since 1964 with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir and soloists including Stephen Milling, Johan Reuter, Dénise Beck and Bror Magnus Tødenes. At the very same time, he was entering the last two weeks of rehearsal for the revival of Kasper Holten’s staging of Maskarade at the Royal Danish Opera.

Aladdin will sound rather different in Schønwandt’s new recording, which has benefited from the luxury of time, studio conditions and a brand new edition of the work – the swansong of the Royal Danish Library’s soon-to-close Danish Centre for Music Editing. ‘This is the most condensed version of the score, but it’s still an epic,’ says Schønwandt. Preparing it from the tatty manuscripts and handmade copies dating from 1888-1902 (many of them viewable online via the Royal Danish Library’s website) has been a Herculean task.

Was it worth it – and the 13 days in the studio? ‘It’s fantastic music. Horneman was a truly brilliant orchestrator. But the opera is also interesting for its collision of idealism with practicality,’ says Schønwandt. There is Beethoven, Wagner and even Gounod in the score, he believes, but the feeling is certainly of an epic: ‘There isn’t a huge amount of poetry in the way the story is told – a lamp is a lamp, a woman is a woman – but there’s clearly a touch of Danish irony. Some operas are better if you create your own dramaturgical version mentally, rather than seeing it on stage.’

Point made. From the session I attended, Horneman’s music felt dramatically and emotionally fluid, if the story was less so. The vocal writing, says Schønwandt, is challenging. ‘Aladdin is a lyric tenor but also a dramatic tenor, with a huge range. Similarly Gulnare [the princess] is a lyric soprano but with dramatic passages where the orchestra is at full throttle.’ Dénise Beck sings the part. ‘I love it. As a lyric soprano it’s interesting to get a role that pushes you into different corners of your voice and has some emotional extremes,’ she says. ‘Sometimes it’s loud and expressive; sometimes it’s very emotional and dolce. All that’s missing is coloratura.’

Many of the cast appeared on Schønwandt’s acclaimed recent recording of Maskarade (2015) while Beck led his 2013 taping of Poul Schierbeck’s Fête galante with the same orchestra and chorus. These are singers he likes to work with for their sense of text, something critics duly noted too. ‘It’s important to be able to sing in Danish and be understood; with Stephen Milling you hear every word.’ In the session I attended, you also heard all the nuances underneath every word from Milling’s portrayal of the Sultan. ‘There’s a bit of irony, a bit of humour and a bit of seriousness in it,’ the bass-baritone says. ‘I have to admit, the piece has very much crept under my skin. My character has a little arietta towards the end, before he is dying, which is very interesting and touching.’

If this unheard music wasn’t disorientating enough, then the circumstances of its recording certainly were. Both sets of sessions, the first of which took place in the summer, happened during the Covid-19 pandemic amid strange new regulations for playing and singing in an empty hall. Singers (including the entire chorus) had to be separated by two metres and instrumental players by one. Every string player had his or her own stand.

‘Initially we were afraid that it might cause problems but it worked out quite well,’ says producer Bernhard Güttler. ‘Of course you have more challenges in playing and singing tightly in an ensemble, but for musicians who know what they’re doing, it also makes them improve themselves. I hear that from the musicians in the orchestra, especially the tutti players, who now have to play more as individuals. It’s also hard for the solo singers to hear each other, but again that arguably makes them sing more individually.’ And the sound? ‘It does change the sound, but not always in a bad way. The spacing of the chorus creates a more ambient, more spaced out sound, which can be nice for the kinds of homophonic textures we have in this piece. You may not get that feeling of a wall of sound, but there are always tradeoffs.’

As an independent producer, and a German rather than a Dane, what does Güttler make of the work itself? ‘I was positively surprised. It is full of influences – Meyerbeer, Beethoven, Weber, Wagner – but the inspiration is very much evident. Let’s get it out in as good a quality as we can, and then let the public decide.’

Andrew Mellor Read the full review on Agora Classica

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