NIELSEN, C.: Piano Music, Vol. 2 (Gary Cole/ Peter Seivewright) (Naxos: 8.553653)
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Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
Complete Piano Music Volume 2 FestivalPrelude Suite, Op. 45
Three Piano Pieces, Op. 59
Piano Music for Young and Old, Op. 53
"It is a fact," Nielsen wrotein his young days, "that the artist who is handy with his fists will securefor himself the most lasting reputation: Beethoven... Bach, Berlioz... andsimilar men have all given their contemporaries a black eye!" However, in1906 he wrote that a composer who shows a little independence is wronglydescribed as a revolutionary because of the continuity which cannot be killedor stifled in the spiritual-artistic life. Nielsen's progressive tendencies andhis discipline to preserve musical principles are polar opposites which callfor the discovery of a thread between the piano works, otherwise so diverse, onthis disc.
As is well-known, Nielsen was born in therural surroundings of Fyn in 1865, the seventh of twelve children in a modestfarm-labourer's cottage. At the age of about six, he was handed athree-quarter-size violin which belonged to his father, "PainterNiels", who was also a village musician, and the boy began to pick outtunes sung in the weak but sweet voice of his mother. In the celebrated book MyChildhood Nielsen recounts his winning a place in the military band atOdense, the capital of Fyn, and his promotion at the age of sixteen to the rankof corporal - "My constant aim was to get a piano, no matter how poor,provided it would play so that I could find the chords... I had heard there wasa little old piano for sale at a watchmaker's in Overgade, and having broughtmy fortune up to 20 kroner I went and had a look at it... That same day itstood in my room, and from then on I spent all my spare time at thepiano."
In a basement tavern Nielsen becamefriends with an elderly pianist who had fallen from better things and whotaught him about some of the great music. In these premises, a casual meetingwith a popular conductor and composer of light music named Olfert Jespersen ledNielsen to believe that he could have a career in music if only he could beadmitted to the Copenhagen Conservatory of Music. In May 1883 he travelledacross the Storebrelt (Great Belt; the sea between Fyn and Zealand) and gainedadmittance. Although he did not study composition in his curriculum, headvanced his piano abilities under J. Gottfred Mathison-Hansen (1832-1909)although never accomplishing the skill to become a concert performer of hispiano works. As discussed in Volume 1, a misconception which needs to bedispelled is that Nielsen was really a symphonist who trained as a violinistand wrote awkwardly for the piano. The description "unpianistic" isused to mean unplayable (evidently the shortcomings of many performers wholeave the music before grasping it) or sounding untypical of the genre. Apartfrom Denmark, in which his songs are best known, it is his symphonies whichtypecast Nielsen, yet Robert Simpson, the English authority on these orchestralworks, identified a pianist, the Dane, Arne Skjold Rasmussen, as "by farthe greatest interpreter of Nielsen in any medium."
France Ellegaard, a pianist born in Parisbut whose parents were Danish, saw Nielsen's detachment from piano virtuosityas a great liberation which permitted his imagination to treat the instrumentwith innovation. In a programme note of 1953, she wrote, "His mind wasnever tied to what his own hands could do... Like Beethoven, Nielsen writesexactly the sound he imagines; Beethoven knew nothing of the conventionalnineteenth-century techniques which were to dominate his successors. Nielsencuts a path clean through the whole Romantic school, straight to Beethovenhimself, objective and direct."
Nielsen's pianistic path clearly fallsinto three chronological clusters or phases of key works. The first period ofhis mature works stretches from the Five Piano Pieces of 1890, Op. 3
until the Humoreske-Bagateller of 1894-97. These pieces began whereGrieg ended, a piano music which was light and accessible. In between the twoextremes of the first period is the Symphonic Suite of 1894, which theItalian-German composer Busoni called "positively unpianistic" andNielsen himself described as orchestral. From then, however, Nielsen maintaineddistinct aims and methods for each genre in which he wrote. Nielsen's secondpianistic phase is represented in this disc by the Suite, Op 45 of1919-20 initially called Den Luciferiske. The major works from the thirdand final period are Tre Klaverstykker (Three Piano Pieces), Op 59of 1928 and Klavermusikfor Smaa og Store (Piano Music for Young and Old,literally, Small and Large), Op 53 of 1930.
The Festival Prelude (FS24) is ashort piano piece written in 1900 to commemorate the new century. Originallyscored for string and wind instruments, it briefly recalls some of the SymphonicSuite's orchestral qualities. In 1901 it was first printed in the Danishnewspaper Politiken and by Edition W. Hansen, and performed by DagmarBorup.
The Suite, Op 45, (FS91), arguablyNielsen's most ambitious work for piano, was dedicated to the virtuoso ArturSchnabel. It was composed mainly in Sweden during the 1919-20 season, whenNielsen was engaged as conductor of Stenharnmar's Gothenberg SymphonyOrchestra, and first performed on 14th March 1921 by Johanne Stockmar. When thework was published (by Peters in Leipzig, as the Danes would not pay wellenough) the composer dropped the title Luciferan: instead of the Greekmythological Bringer of Light, listeners were expecting some association withthe devil. Only the sixth movement has a diabolic element, according to thecomposer, "urging the player on to stronger contrasts and more violentaccents." Nielsen's foreword acknowledged the freedom of each performer tofind his or her own interpretation, but advised. "... the beginning of thefirst movement rather cold and restrained in tone with a peaceful flowingtempo... The second movement poco moderato with the most beautiful toneand subtle use of pedals, as if one were listening. The third movement withtranscendental calm and power, and in many places... a certain brutal humour.
The fourth movement with a chilly, glass-like execution, without the slightesttrace of feeling, but with exquisite tone. The fifth movement isself-evident."
The third and final phase of Nielsen'spiano music began with some of Nielsen's ultimate statements in modernism. Hehad met, among others, Bart6k and Schoenberg, and had returned from the 1927Music Festival in Frankfurt where the eminent German conductor WilhelmFurtwangler had conducted Nielsen's Fifth Symphony. Three Piano Pieces, Op. 59(FSI31) were composed in the following year. Initially two separate impromptusdated 15th January and 1st March were first performed by Christian Christiansenon 14th April (in reverse order and with the titles Adagio and Impromptu).
The third piece was completed on 6th November and the collection wasposthumously published in 1937. Like the Sixth Symphony and the Fluteand Clarinet Concerti, the Three Piano Pieces not onlyreflect but anticipate modernism. They reveal Nielsen's deep concerns in thedirection of the new music with its minimal and transparent textures,disintegrating tonality, and thematic discontinuity. Thus it may be in thepiano music that Nielsen reaches out to his furthest point of musicalimpressionism, with subjects containing all twelve notes of the scale (in the fu