This two disc set features something of a rarity – a monarch conducting.
t would be too easy to dismiss King Frederik IX as an enthusiastic amateur who managed to indulge in his expensive (for the rest of us) hobby of conducting. Many orchestras, are to some extent or another available for “rent”, so to speak, so that deep-pocketed individuals would be able, for a few hours anyway, to wave the baton in front of an ungrateful group of instrumentalists that form the orchestra in question.
But to do so would be to do King Frederik IX a grave disservice. Listening to these performances, one is convinced that he was much more than just an amateur. The detailed and interesting booklet notes, beautifully written by Claus Rollum-Larsen, describes how he set his heart on conducting at a very early stage which subsequently led him to perform opera overtures and Beethoven’s First Symphony with a small orchestra put together by Queen Alexandrine, his mother. Later, he worked with the Band of the Royal Lifeguards and the Royal Danish Orchestra.
The “band” he conducts in these discs is the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, and they play very well for their King. King Frederik IX preferred symphonic repertoire and works such as the mighty Tannhauser overture, featured here, show just how committed he was to them. The overture may not be the most polished in execution, but it is stylishly played, which is more important, impeccably paced and indeed worthy of some of the great Wagnerians. An irresistible swagger informs the performance and the musicians play their hearts out. Fredrik IX proves himself to be quite at home with rubato as well, never sounding forced or artificial – a hugely enjoyable performance.
The same feeling that the King was at home with the music he conducted follows his performances of the other great works. The Beethoven Seventh begins with a weightiness worthy of a Furtwangler and remains remarkably in that general mold, albeit with more thrust. His sense of logic and drama is strong and the way the symphony unfolds is a delight. Add this to the fact that the musicians clearly enjoy working with their King and you have a recipe for a performance all can enjoy – not viscerally exciting, perhaps, but definitely not superficial either, and never boring. The second movement, played as an Adagio, emerges with a keen sense of logic and personality. He follows Beethoven’s dynamic markings faithfully and the build-up is again impeccable. It is a serious-mind performance that never abates. The Scherzo is similarly warmly played and features a particularly beautifully played Trio. The performance romps home with a weighty finale that is still capable of lightness of touch. The reading of the symphony on the whole is warm-hearted and lovable and should have received greater applause than we hear on the disc.
The Eroica, which is programmed on the second disc, is similarly weighty in conception and stems from a performance in 1950. It suffers from a less sympathetic recording than the Seventh, but the ear adjusts. The first movement exposition is not repeated, but that’s hardly a problem – it has a thrust here despite the weight that is quite Beethovenian! Never does it seem to drag, and placed in the context of an amateur conductor, this is quite an achievement. The second movement Funeral March is full of personal touches that show the King’s familiarity with the music, the last movement is beautifully paced and never lags, again a good indication of how fine the performance is. The readings always sound honest and sincere, and that’s perhaps the most important thing.
The rest of the two discs is filled with works by his countrymen. Echoes of Ossian, or “Efterklange af Ossian” is Gade’s Op. 1 but youth is probably the last thing you’d think of listening to it – it is serious, ambitious, very interesting and entertaining in the best sense of the word.
Recommended to all, not just the Danes!