Notes and Editorial Reviews
Truly excellent Nielsen, from Young to Old
Complete surveys of Carl Nielsen’s remarkable oeuvre for solo piano are not thick on the ground. Hyperion’s set played by Mina Miller was recorded in 1986, and has since re-appeared on the Danacord label. This is my principal reference, Hyperion CDA66231/2, and those who have this on its popular LP edition can now consider whether they want to update with this new recording by Martin Roscoe. There are sets by Elisabeth Westenholz on a fairly early Bis recording, and another by Anne Øland, neither of which I know. Peter Seivewright has recorded these works for Naxos if budget is an issue, and Leif Ove Andsnes’s single disc selection is very good on Virgin if completeness
is not what you are looking for. As far as I am concerned, this new release is now top choice, and I now only have the pleasant task of trying to tell you why.
Nielsen as a symphonic composer has become a familiar name in the record shops in the last few decades, and the larger scale piano works share some of the character of these marvellous works. Both Miller for her own set, and Daniel Grimley for this one, begin by pointing out Nielsen’s own modest accomplishments as a pianist in their well-written booklet notes. The assumption that a composer of virtuoso music for an instrument must be a virtuoso themselves is something of a misconception, supported by examples such as Liszt, Paganini, Chopin and the like. Quite often that very skill as a performer can stand in the way of composing with clarity for one’s own instrument, and it is all too easy to fall into the writing of reams of technical display which can impress, but ultimately hold little in the way of real musical communication. Nielsen’s strength as a composer shine through in pieces like the 15 minute Symphonic Suite, even though the abundance of youthful energy can spill over into extended passagework which threatens to overstay its welcome, though never quite does. This grand piece is contemporary with the 1st Symphony, and shares its openness and honesty of expression.
Roscoe and Hyperion have wisely avoided a deliberately chronological approach to the programming, and have interspersed the shorter incidental pieces with larger scale works on the first disc. Roscoe plays the shorter pieces with equal commitment to that in the bigger works, and the Festival Prelude for the New Century has all of the monumental grandeur of an orchestral overture. The contemporaneous A dream about ‘Silent Night’ is a little gem of a piece which holds an entire world of imagination in its brief time span. Nielsen’s own commitment to the usefulness of music in a social and educational context are expressed in simpler works for children or amateurs such as the Piano Music for Young and Old and the marvellous little Humoresque-Bagatelles, and Martin Roscoe makes as convincing an argument for these works’ appearance on disc as for something like Bartók’s ‘Mikrokosmos’. These pieces are, as so many of this ilk, deceptive in their accessibility and technical content, as this poor Associated Board exam candidate can confirm. Roscoe’s unerring touch and sense of phrasing show how much good music can be made from a minimum of means.
The Chaconne and the Theme and Variations Op.40 were composed within months of each other, and share similarities of structure in their extended arch forms, developing the ideas of ‘progressive tonality’ which are also such a strong feature of the symphonies. Strong, expansive thematic ideas and their development over extended time are the keys to these pieces, and Roscoe’s sense of structure and musical direction always keep us pointing in the same, correct direction.
Disc two opens with one of Nielsen’s pivotal piano works, the Suite Op.45. Of all of these works this is the tougher nut to crack, with a more experimental approach and an initial feeling of dislocation as the ideas tumble and tumult. Nielsen always rewards us with resolution and repose after all that drama however, and repeated listening constantly engage in a new voyage of discovery. The composer’s own subtitle ‘Fire and Water’ give some indication of the elemental power at work here, and the more exotic sonorities and tonalities with which Nielsen composes are a kind of summation of that duality which his music has: progressive and searching, while always existing within conventions and traditions which give grip and substance. Taken as a reference piece for comparing Roscoe and Miller I find myself admiring Miller’s sense of contrast, and of the startling nature of much of this music. The opening Allegretto u pochettino is full of darting character and little stops and starts, shaping the music with rubato and extremes of dynamic. The same is true of that grand opening to the third movement, Molto adagio e patetico. Roscoe is less extreme with the furthest reaches of strangeness in this music, but in turn creates a greater sense of integration. Miller is arguably more interesting at a micro level, but now I know why listening to her recordings used to wear me out after a while – resulting in my becoming less of a fan of Nielsen’s piano work. Rediscovering these pieces as played by Roscoe has rejuvenated my faith in this favourite of great composers, though I know I shall be hanging on to my Mina, just so that those alternative perspectives can be explored should the need arise.
As far as recorded sound goes this new Hyperion release is very good indeed. The recording is closer than that of Miller’s though the piano is never shoved so far forward that you feel the lid might drop on your head. The Potton Hall acoustic is as ever a trusty companion to good piano sound, resonating without cloudy reverb and helping the music along by placing it in an attractive setting while never becoming an obtrusive feature. Martin Roscoe’s committed and colourful advocacy of the entire range of Nielsen’s piano music makes this new recording very much worth its asking price, and I will certainly be placing it on my shortlist for a ‘disc of the year.’
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
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