Born into a well-to-do Danish family in 1840, Christian Frederik Emil Horneman showed musical talent at an early age, then went on to study in Leipzig and later spent most of his life as a teacher. But he would also compose a limited amount of music, which one wishes had been greater in quantity judging from the fine orchestral works on this new release.
Horneman's daughter and son-in-law were both involved with the theater, which may explain what little music he wrote was mostly stage-related. Accordingly, three of the four selections on this album are suites from incidental music for plays, beginning with the 1899 romantic drama Gurre, which also inspired Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.
The overture has arresting hunting horn calls and one particularly attractive amorous melody. The following preludes to the second, fourth and fifth acts reflect the melancholy, foreboding and playfully coquettish nature of the drama.
The next suite features four numbers from Kampen med Muserne (Battle with the Muses). Highlights include an atmospheric "Sunrise" and an orgiastic "Bacchantic Dance."
Then we get one of the composer's rare nontheatrical pieces, Ouverture Héroique from 1867. An engaging amalgam of Weber and Tchaikovsky in a cleverly modified version of sonata form, it makes one regret Horneman never composed any extended symphonic works.
The album concludes with a suite from music for the 1854 tragedy Kalanus, about an encounter between an Indian ascetic of that name and Alexander the Great. The "Introduction and Prayer" has a motif that recalls the Dies Irae. And the closing "Death of Kalanus" ends on a major chord, probably signifying the guru's belief that his death would be the gateway to eternal enlightenment.
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Vocal Ensemble — whose female singers provide choral support in the second suite — are under Sweden's Johannes Gustavsson, one of today's leading young conductors. They give exceptionally spirited performances, making a strong case for these symphonic curiosities. Horneman couldn't have better advocates.
Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.