SCHUMANN Waldszenen. MENDELSSOHN Songs Without Words: op. 67/3, 5; op. 85/2; op. 102/1. RAVEL Gaspard de la nuit & • Vladimir Nielsen (pn) • NORTHERN FLOWERS 9982 (56:14) Live: Kiev 1955; Leningrad 1960
& MEDTNER FairyRead more Tales: op. 20/1; op. 34/2
Here is a true rarity, a recording by a pianist who apparently made no recordings. In this respect, his discovery is much like that I had the pleasure of experiencing last year in the person of Mexican soprano Irma González, who likewise made no commercial discs. Vladimir Nielsen, Russian born of Swedish heritage, was one of the piano stars of the old Soviet Union, but the powers-that-be treasured him so much that they kept him under wraps for decades. Originally a pupil of N. I. Richter, he had to move on to studies with I. A. Braudo after Richter was removed from his post for “ideological reasons.” (We all know what that means, right? “Excuse me, comrade, where is Professor Richter today?” “I believe he is in a boxcar, on his way to Siberia, Student Nielsen!”) He also came under the wing of Nadezhda Golubovskaya, who adored his playing and in turn was adored by Nielsen. Nielsen also studied organ, and in 1936 was awarded first prize playing that instrument in a Soviet competition. That same year, he was scheduled to take part in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw and a piano competition in Brussels, but someone in the Politbureau pulled some strings and his travel visa was mysteriously revoked.
Nielsen’s first concerts outside the Soviet Union did not occur until 1957–59, and then only in Eastern Bloc countries (Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland), after which he was refused exit visas for yet another 30 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet within his own country, he was a living legend, giving concerts of the entire 32 sonatas of Beethoven during the 1982–83 season, and a similar cycle of Chopin’s works in 1988–89, all of this despite suffering a cardiac infarction in 1963 that nearly ended his life, and further, smaller incidents thereafter. The liner notes also indicate that he taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory for 60 years, his students including “well-known pianists and teachers, but also composers, conductors, organists, and harpsichord players,” yet oddly not one name is given. Nor can one find any such information online, despite the fact that a piano festival in his name was founded in Sag Harbor, New York, in 2007.
Despite his Scandinavian background, Nielsen had a very Russian soul. A comment on the website of the Nielsen Festival claims that his credo was “You must stand on your knees before the composer.” The CD liner notes go further, stating that he used to yell at his pupils, “You cannot read music!” and “Learn from the composer, not from me! He wrote everything; you just need to see and grasp.” Asked about his favorite composers, Nielsen would touch his finger to his forehead and say, “Beethoven is here,” point to his heart and say, “Chopin is here,” then spread his hands and arms apart and say, “Bach … is everywhere!” He was also fond of saying, “When you play the piano, you have nowhere to hide.”
As for the performances, they are, in a word, magical. Although Nielsen displays a certain amount of keyboard power, he does not flaunt it as his countrymen Horowitz or Richter did; rather, he plays more often than not with the kind of gentleness one associates with Gilels, but with an even greater spiritual connection to the music. There are about these performances the kind of aura one can hear in the recordings of Cortot and Haskil, an almost mystical synergy that is so difficult to put into words. Nothing about these performances is routine, workaday, or ordinary; they glow with an inner life that transcends the written score, though they are certainly faithful to it. Perhaps the most unusual (to our ears) interpretation is his performance of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Whereas most pianists emphasize its dreamy, Impressionistic character, Nielsen plunges into a nocturnal world of half-hidden passions, playing the three sections with an increasing fervor that brings us deep into a state of induced trance.
Alas, the sonics are horrendous. I’m not sure what technology Kiev and Leningrad Radio were using to preserve their broadcasts in 1955–60, but it sounds like they were recorded on primitive acetates (shades of the 1930s Presto recorders) with a stylus of granite. All the upper notes at full volume are distorted with a fuzzy, buzzing sound, and although one can faintly discern some hall ambience there is almost none of the natural sound of a piano. Each note decays in about a half-second, so between that flaw and the thick sound, it seems that he is playing a 500,000 B.C. Flintstones 250D model piano. Considering that Nielsen continued to concertize into the 1990s, I find it extremely difficult to believe that these primitive discs represent the only or best examples of his playing; surely, someone recorded him better elsewhere, later in life? Nevertheless, this is a disc that every pianist and piano-music lover should snap up before it disappears. There are too few artists of his caliber on disc, and no one who hears these wholly unique performances will remain immune to their fascinating quality.