Review By Patric Standford,Music & Vision,October 2009
Kayser may have been a more widely known name in twentieth century musical history had he not made a critical decision at the age of twenty-three to abandon a musical career, well founded as a student at the Royal Danish Academy, to journey to Rome and train for the priesthood. He returned to Denmark in 1949 and took up a post as priest at the Catholic Cathedral of St Ansgar in Copenhagen. He continued to compose, completing a third Symphony begun whilst in Rome, and devoting much time to religious works (a Christmas Oratorio and Te Deum, both for chorus and large orchestra) as well as a great many organ works. However, in 1964 he requested a release from his vows, began teaching at the Academy and eventually married. His standards as a teacher were high,
Symphony No 1 was written around 1938 when he was nineteen, and shows extraordinary technical mastery, both in its formal symphonic organisation (it is a concentrated single movement work of about sixteen minutes) and in its resourceful and challenging orchestration—not least in a colourfully vivacious ‘scherzo’ section.
Symphony No 4 seems to reverse the youthful optimism of the 1st by moving into a more introverted and searching mode. It is a work by a composer keenly aware that the time of its first performance (1966) is a period of radical musical changes, and—like Nielsen earlier—he is unsure of his possibly outmoded place in those adventurous times. Modernism created expectations in the world of contemporary arts and music that were opposed to his own ideals. The third movement of the 4th Symphony has something monumental about it like a cathedral, meditative, expansive and bold, but there is still a hint of vigorous demands being made in the scherzo.
Kayser continued to work up to his death in 2001, forever challenging, never allowing himself (or his students) an easy way out. An anecdote is worth quoting: a visitor who came to play Kayser’s four-hand arrangement of The Rite of Spring felt unable to meet the demands. ‘Cissy!’ said Kayser.
Review By Barry Brenesal ,Fanfare,July 2009
“Carl Nielsen rose to Olympus, but sent Kayser down here,” is how one influential critic reacted to the debut of the Symphony No. 1, by Leif Kayser (1919–2001). Premiered when the composer was not yet 20, the work presaged a brilliant career for the young musician, who was also a distinguished conductor, pianist, and organist. So it made quite a stir when Kayser abruptly terminated all his musical responsibilities in 1942 and flew to Rome, training for the priesthood. Although he resumed both composition and performance after returning to Copenhagen in 1949, the musical landscape had begun to shift dramatically. The serialists were gaining ascendance, even in conservative Denmark, and the musical establishment over the ensuing years began to be far less
The First Symphony is in four continuous movements. It makes use of Nielsen’s “progressive tonality,” but is less dissonant overall. It is a work brimming with justified self-confidence, most especially in the Largo cantabile movement, a slowly unwinding hymn set as a series of variations in two and three-part counterpoint. One of the dramatic high points is the way this ethereal piece is suddenly displaced by the pompous, off-kilter mock-march that forms the Scherzo. Throughout, the orchestral writing is distinctive, and the thematic content richly memorable.
There is no question upon hearing Kayser’s Symphony No. 4 that it continues the language present in his earliest symphonic essay. Neither, however, is it a dry, academic attempt to recapture old forms. There is great vitality and imagination in this work, cast in four expansive movements, of which the third, a magnificent Lento lasting here over 20 minutes, is the centerpiece. Rising to an impressive climax, it displays his emotional immediacy, brilliant orchestration, and lightly dissonant harmonic language to excellent advantage. Elsewhere, there’s a measured introductory movement that demonstrates Kayser’s contrapuntal prowess and sharp rhetorical logic, a breathless, ingenious Scherzo, and a lengthy, conflicted finale that incorporates motifs from the other movements before going out in a blaze of optimistic glory.