Notes and Editorial Reviews
Complete Piano Works
Christina Bjørkøe (pn)
cpo 777 413 (2 CDs: 133:41)
“For the New Century.”
Dream of a Merry Christmas.
Theme and Variations,
Piano Music for Young and Old,
By random selection, this just happened to be my next assignment after I’d dispatched my review of a Zig-Zag Territories disc of Janá?ek’s solo piano music with Hélène Couvert. I mention this not because I intend to draw parallels between the lives or music of these two very different composers (though they were closely contemporaneous in time, their cultural and musical backgrounds, not to mention their personalities and life experiences, were poles apart), but because certain parallels exist for me relative to my own knowledge and appreciation of these two very important figures that bridge the start of the 20th century. In both cases, I can claim fair familiarity with their orchestral works and chamber music. Yet I can claim far less familiarity with their works for solo piano. Also, I confess that my discovery of Nielsen was overdue, delayed by the notion—not uncommon, I think, to many of my generation—that he was Sibelius’s weak sister. That perception was instantly dispelled the first time I heard Nielsen’s
, an unusual avenue of revelation for me, since opera is not my first love. But that led me to his symphonies, string quartets, and his concertos for clarinet and for violin. His works for solo piano, however, remained for me uncharted territory.
One thing that both Nielsen and Janá?ek did have in common is that neither of them wrote copiously for piano. Here on two discs is Nielsen’s complete output for the instrument, spanning a period of four decades from 1890 to 1931, the year of his death. Quite unlike Janá?ek’s pieces for piano, however, those of Nielsen’s that venture into the descriptive, depictive, or programmatic are the exception to the rule. Though he wrote no work designated a sonata, it can be seen from most of the pieces’ titles that Nielsen was concerned to express himself musically within the boundaries of Baroque and Classical forms. Even movement designations within multimovement works are stated mainly as fairly basic tempo indications. The exceptions of course are the
, which have titles like “The Spinning Top,” “The Doll’s March,” and the “Musical Clock,” and the early
, op. 3, with titles like “Elf Dance” and “Mignon,” both works somewhat reminiscent of Schumann’s
Album for the Young
The Suite, op. 45, continues to carry the nickname “Luciferian,” given by Nielsen himself, but later withdrawn by the composer due to its unintended satanic association. An original sketch for the work refers to the elements of fire and water. The composer’s use of the adjective “Luciferian” arose from his misunderstanding and misappropriation of the original Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in which Lucifer, the Morning Star, came to be translated as “the bringer of light,” not “fire,” as Nielsen imagined. The Lucifer-into-Satan transformation was a later Christian contribution.
The collection is arranged in chronological order, so that most of the material on disc 1—up through the
Dream of a Merry Christmas
of 1905, or approximately the halfway point in Nielsen’s 40-year output of piano pieces—will be of a familiarity to you even if you’ve never heard it before, because it seems to have been strongly influenced by Schumann, with perhaps a bit of Chopin thrown in for good measure. Between 1905 and 1916, there was a hiatus. What comes next, the Chaconne, op. 32, represents a tectonic shift. Beginning with a Bach-like aria reminiscent of the
, Nielsen quickly departs on a phantasmagoric journey of strange harmonies and even stranger sonorities that run the gamut from Beethoven’s late piano sonatas to Alkan and Busoni. Much the same can be said of the 1917 Theme and Variations, op. 40, and the 1919/20 Suite, op. 45, that follow it.
Another hiatus of seven years follows. Then, between 1927 and 1931, come Nielsen’s last three works in the medium, the
, op. 59, the
Piano Music for Young and Old
, and a 34-second etude titled simply
. In these late works, Nielsen has synthesized his Romantic impulses with his modernist leanings. Bach again comes to the fore in the 20th movement of the
Piano Music for Young and Old
in a piece appropriately titled “Alla Bach.” Echoes of Couperin, Scarlatti, Handel, and others are heard, too, throughout this cycle, but with unexpected twists and turns that are Nielsen’s unique stamp.
This is a wonderful set that has enlarged my knowledge of Nielsen and increased my already considerable appreciation of his music. There’s not a piece in this collection that I did not enjoy listening to, some of them multiple times. Having already admitted that Nielsen’s piano music has been largely
to me, I’m not able to tell you how Christina Bjørkøe’s performances stack up to competing versions, of which I’m sure Martin Roscoe’s on Hyperion and Elisabeth Westenholz’s on BIS—two well-known artists I would expect to excel in this repertoire—are equally fine. However, Bjørkøe is fully up to the task technically, and she plays with a great deal of finesse and genuine feeling for the content and style of Nielsen’s music. Recorded between July and August 2007 in Copenhagen’s The Black Diamond studio, Bjørkøe’s unidentified piano is beautifully captured in full detail and pristine clarity. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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