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Hyperion Records

CDA67591/2 - Nielsen: Complete Piano Music
Scutolo, 'The Marvel of Marvels' (1912) by Henry Brokman-Knudsen (1868-1933)
Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée du Petit-Palais, France / Lauros / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: Various dates
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Michael George
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: June 2008
DISCID: 8510492C 670B1119
Total duration: 114 minutes 28 seconds


'These new recordings are sonically the best yet. Roscoe is famed for his touch and his playing's delicacy and finesse is evident throughout' (Gramophone)

'Apart from Grieg, no Scandinavian composer has written for the piano with more individuality and insight than Nielsen … Martin Roscoe is right inside this music and guides us through its marvels with great subtlety and authority. His is the most eloquent account since the pioneering set by Arne Skjøld Rasmussen. Hyperion gives him vivid and natural recorded sound and there are outstanding notes by Daniel Grimley' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The piano music of Carl Nielsen is notable not only for its striking emotional power and radicalism but also for its transparency—for the writing is always unmistakably Nielsen … the album as a whole is a treasure-chest; it presents an entirely new slant for those not acquainted with Nielsen's music and broadens the field of vision significantly for those who are … this deserves to become a most conspicuous recording, and Hyperion's usual excellence in achieving a full-bodied, crystal-clear sound continues boldly forward' (International Record Review)

'The Symphonic Suite, the Chaconne, the magnificent Theme and Variations … are powerful, poetic, original in both idea and structure, widely varied in mood, impressively organic and as important in their way as any of Nielsens' remarkable symphonies. Martin Roscoe's technique withstands everything that the composer throws at it. He obviously belives in every note, as well he might' (The Sunday Times)

'Martin Roscoe demonstrates throughout this revealing double CD set [that Nielsen's piano music] is a canon of work that desperately needs attention … fantastic playing of compelling authority by one of Britain's finest pianists. A wonderful discovery' (The Herald)

Complete Piano Music
Quasi allegretto  [3'25]
Andante  [6'22]
Finale: Allegro  [3'51]
Book 1—The Sharp Keys
Book 2—The Flat Keys
Poco moderato  [2'24]
Allegretto vivo  [1'16]
Theme: Andante  [0'57]
Molto adagio  [2'46]

Nielsen’s piano works are among the most original and characteristic in the repertoire. There is no mistaking his idiosyncratic musical voice, his sense of joy of discovery and invention, and spirit of imagination and adventure. Nielsen’s complete piano music encompasses the full diversity and range of his creative output. Though he never aspired to brilliance as a performer, Nielsen’s piano works are nevertheless marked by his intimate knowledge of the instrument and his awareness of the its creative and expressive capabilities. From the symbolist-inspired music of the 1890s to the highly modernist Three Pieces, these works constantly attest to the richness of his imaginative vision.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It is often assumed that composers who write especially striking or original music for a particular instrument are themselves gifted performers. For example, it is difficult to imagine Mozart’s, Chopin’s or Rachmaninov’s piano music without some sense of their respective abilities (and characters) as talented players. Surely their performing technique had a direct influence on the way they wrote for the keyboard. Yet surviving documentary and anecdotal evidence suggests that this was not the case for Carl Nielsen. The recent discovery of a set of wax cylinders in the state library archives at Aarhus, which contains a recording of two short pieces performed by the composer himself, suggests that Nielsen’s piano playing was patchy at best. A more poignant story is recounted by Nielsen’s daughter, Anne-Marie Telmányi, who recalled how, during a visit to Paris in 1926 at which he was appointed to the Légion d’Honneur in recognition of his musical achievements, Carl Nielsen attended a reception along with other leading musicians including Albert Roussel, Arthur Honegger and Maurice Ravel. After Ravel had performed one of his technically challenging and virtuosic works, Nielsen sat down at the piano and, to general surprise, began to play a fantasy by Mozart rather than one of his own compositions—in part recognition, perhaps, of his own modest abilities as a pianist.

But Nielsen’s limitations as a performer in no way inhibited his ability to compose for the piano. Precisely the contrary, in fact: his relative lack of practical expertise appears to have liberated rather than restricted his compositional imagination, so that Nielsen’s piano works are among the most original and characteristic in the literature. There is no mistaking Nielsen’s own idiosyncratic musical voice. In many of his works there is an almost childlike joy of discovery and invention, a reflection perhaps of his earliest experiences of the instrument. In his autobiography, My Childhood on Funen, written in 1927, Nielsen described an old spinet in his parents’ home: ‘I cannot remember whether I found chords or triads, but with one finger of each hand I played a long succession of sweet thirds, and as my two fingers thus kept company I thought, remembering a snatch of an old song, “Two thrushes sat on a beech-tree branch”.’

A fundamental dualism underpins much of Nielsen’s piano music: on the one hand, a tactile sense of exploration, of fingers physically moving across the keyboard and enjoying the experience of weight and articulation associated with particular figurations or shapes, and, on the other, a spirit of imagination and adventure, of musical ideas whose origins and conception lie beyond any literal sense of practical execution and lead into entirely new areas of character and expression.

This dualism is reflected in the two categories of work that Nielsen produced for the piano. The first category consists largely of pedagogical compositions and occasional works—teaching pieces, primarily intended for amateur pianists and children in particular, deliberately accessible and undemanding in style and technique, though often with a sense of more complex and characteristic impulses lying beneath the music’s surface. The second category consists of large-scale pieces, comparable with Nielsen’s symphonies and concertos, whose musical language is more explicitly challenging and advanced, although both categories of works ultimately display the same richness of invention. It is not surprising, perhaps, that Nielsen’s first published work for the piano, the Five Piano Pieces Op 3, belongs essentially in the earlier category. Nielsen may have composed two of the pieces, Nos 2 and 5, as early as 1887–9, although the complete set was not assembled until 1890–91, while he was away from Denmark on his first trip abroad. The set is characteristically diverse in mood and expression. The opening number, ‘Folk Tune’, is in a somewhat stylized Jugendstil vein, although Nielsen adds the Danish direction ‘nynnende’ (‘humming’) to the opening bar. The third number, ‘Arabesque’, is remarkable for its sense of harmonic waywardness—a significant foreshadow of his later compositional idiom. Before publication, Nielsen referred to the piece as ‘Fanden’ (‘The Devil’), and the music is prefaced by a quotation from the symbolist poet Jens Peter Jacobsen: ‘Har Du faret vild i dunkle Skove? Kjender Du Pan?’ (‘Have you lost your way in the dark forest? Do you know Pan?’).

Nielsen’s next composition for piano was his first large-scale work for the instrument. The Symphonic Suite Op 8 was composed in 1894, immediately after the successful premiere of his Symphony No 1, and is similarly ambitious in scale and musical scope. David Fanning has discovered that the first movement was inspired by the sight of a sturdy old oak tree at the farm in Gjorslev where the piece was composed. Nielsen wrote: ‘During the period when I was writing the piece I went every day to the tree and received a strong impression, which I then tried to reproduce in a succession of powerful chord progressions in the aforementioned piece.’ The movement is played fortissimo throughout, and the title (‘Intonation’) serves a double purpose: to describe both the act of sounding, or projecting (‘to intone’), and the adoption of a particular mode of expression or tone of musical voice. The second movement is a complete contrast, a gentle pastoral, whose middle section generates a considerable sense of linear contrapuntal energy; while the third movement is an extended Andante with contrasting second subject, whose opening bars are coloured by Nielsen’s characteristic modal melodic interval, the flattened seventh. The finale is a fluid moto perpetuo, which recalls themes from earlier movements in a circular résumé before driving home the closing bars in a decisive coda that anticipates the spirit, and tonality (A major), of the conclusion of the third symphony, composed sixteen years later.

The 1890s were the period of Nielsen’s first great compositional breakthrough, the time when he established himself as the leading modernist voice in contemporary Danish music, and, for many critics, as an avant-gardiste whose larger works were frequently a ‘bone of contention’. However, his third piano composition from the 1890s, the Humoresque-Bagatelles Op 11, belongs again to the first category of shorter pieces or character works. Though the Bagatelles were premiered on 3 September 1898, little is known about their compositional genesis. One newspaper compared them with Schumann’s Kinderszenen, and argued that they were unsuitable material for the concert hall. Retrospectively, however, a more useful comparison might be with the shorter twentieth-century piano works of Bartók, Prokofiev or Debussy—pieces such as Debussy’s suite Children’s Corner, designed to capture the imagination of younger players and listeners alike. The first piece, ‘Goddag! Goddag!’, is a playful Allegretto whose opening motif echoes the Danish for ‘Hello! Hello!’. Here, and in the following movement, ‘The Spinning Top’ (‘Snurretoppen’), the diatonic innocence of the opening bars almost entirely conceals the more modernist chromaticism of the central section. The third number is a slow waltz that constantly threatens to drift lazily into harmonically uncharted waters, despite its circularity, while the fourth is as dynamically and harmonically unpredictable as its title, ‘The Jumping Jack’ (‘Sprællemanden’), suggests. The two final movements inhabit a stylized world of eighteenth-century classicism that looks forward, in many ways, to Nielsen’s great comic opera, Maskarade (‘Masquerades’). The ‘Puppet March’ (‘Dukke-Marsch’) is like a Haydn Allegro in miniature, whereas the repetitive figuration of the closing movement, ‘The Musical Clock’ (‘Spilleværket’) seems more suggestive of Mozart, a composer with whom Nielsen of course felt an especially close affinity.

Nielsen marked the advent of the new century with two short occasional works. The Festival Prelude for the New Century (Fest-Præludium ved Aarhundredskiftet) is a breezily confident piece, whose sustained octaves and chords recall the opening movement (‘Intonation’) of the Suite Op 8. Nielsen marks the first bar ‘stolt, pompøst’ (‘proud, pompous’), and dedicated the work to his close friend, the artist Jens Ferdinand Willumsen. The piece was published on the front page of the Danish daily newspaper Politiken on 1 January 1901. The second piece is an altogether stranger beast: A Dream about ‘Silent Night’ (Drømmen om ‘Glade Jul’) is an improvisatory paraphrase based on the famous Christmas carol, which swiftly departs from the original melody and explores new, more unusual musical territory. Nielsen’s title, ‘Dream’, is significant, suggesting parallels with his orchestral tone poem Saga-drøm, which likewise contains passages of a strangely fantastical and arabesque-like nature. The work was composed in 1905, and, appropriately given the subject matter, the score is dated 3 December.

Nielsen did not write any more works for piano for the next ten years. During this period, he completed not only his second opera, but also his third and fourth symphonies and the Violin Concerto—works which began to establish his reputation as a composer of international, rather than merely national, significance. The 1910s were also marked by a series of personal crises in Nielsen’s life: his decision to resign from his post at the Royal Theatre and become a freelance composer, and his estrangement from his wife, the sculptor Anne-Marie Carl Nielsen. The decade also saw a growing divide in Nielsen’s output, between his popular works and his more complex and modernist pieces—difficult works such as the second violin sonata (1913) appeared alongside his first collaboration with the educationalist and church musician Thomas Laub. When he returned to the piano, in 1916, Nielsen produced two large-scale works that certainly belong in the more ‘difficult’ category, though both also reveal traces of his interest in older musical forms, and the world of Baroque counterpoint in particular. Nielsen himself confessed that his Chaconne Op 32 was modelled on the famous Bach work for solo violin. In a letter to his daughter, Irmelin Eggert-Møller, Nielsen revealed: ‘You know Bach’s delightful Ciaconne for solo violin, of course. If only I could reach his shoulders with mine for piano!’ The work begins with the eight-bar ground bass theme played alone in the left hand; this provides the basis for the whole piece. The right-hand melody which then emerges in counterpoint with the bass gradually develops, as the work evolves, into an independent countersubject. At times the figuration recalls the kind of writing associated with Bach’s solo violin music. For the most part, however, the variations are entirely pianistic in conception. Increasingly florid and delicate, the Chaconne briefly reaches a moment of hymn-like calm and repose before unleashing a shatteringly violent and dramatic central climax, with harsh dissonant chords hammered in both hands above a simplified version of the bass theme in the piano’s lowest register. As this climax eventually subsides, the countersubject returns, before a crystalline coda closes the work in the major key, the final page ascending ever higher into the upper register of the keyboard. Not so much a sense of transcendence, perhaps, as a gesture of perfect balance and stability.

The Theme and Variations Op 40, which Nielsen composed only a couple of months after finishing the Chaconne, follows a similar formal and expressive trajectory: a broad, asymmetrical arch which begins with a sense of relative repose before growing and reaching an anguished, dissonant climax, and then draws rapidly away towards a more balanced conclusion. The theme itself is a characteristically original conceit which exemplifies, in miniature, the principle of structural modulation in Nielsen’s music that Robert Simpson called ‘progressive tonality’—the process of shifting from one tonic (or home key) towards another across the progress of a work. Here, the theme begins in B minor, but Nielsen swiftly exploits the enharmonic transformation of G sharp (A flat) as a means of exploring new harmonic areas, and the theme eventually closes in G minor. The first variation then begins by punning on the structural status of F sharp as leading note (in G minor) and dominant (in B). The theme’s open harmonic structure drives the variations that follow, which grow in intensity much like the variations in the Chaconne. Variation 11 is a spiky ‘Capriccioso’, while Nielsen subtitles Variation 13 ‘Ostinato’, a number whose obstinate repeated figuration ultimately generates the dissonant climax of the work in Variation 15. From here, the piece subsides rapidly. Nielsen described the closing pages as ‘the wild response of a man who fights with his back to an iceberg and finally, as though drunk [ubbrioso] and exhausted by the conflict staggers away’, like a character gradually leaving the stage, bowed but ultimately undefeated—a state of being (and resilience) to which Nielsen himself could relate, following one of the most turbulent periods in his life.

Similar progressive tonal tendencies can be identified in the Suite Op 45, perhaps Nielsen’s single most important work for piano, which he completed in summer 1919. Here the scheme involves the gradual emergence, from cell-like beginnings, of B flat as the work’s ultimate goal and ‘home key’ (in the expressive as well as structural sense). B flat first appears as the pivotal bass pedal in the first movement, and then as an element in the strange unearthly sonority which opens the second. The third movement, a stirring Molto adagio, begins confidently in G minor, only to close in B flat—but the status of B flat as a tonic is only provisional at this stage, and the fourth and fifth movements make no reference to this tonality at all. Indeed, it is not until the dramatic Hammerklavier-like quavers of the very closing bars of the finale that B flat is genuinely established as a stable reference point, and the piece can be brought to a decisive conclusion. Nielsen originally referred to the work as ‘Ild og Vand’ (‘Fire and Water’), a reference to the music’s elemental nature that may also have inspired its later subtitle, Luciferisk (‘The Luciferian’), which Nielsen used for the first performance in March 1921 but later dropped. Nielsen was evidently thinking of Lucifer as the bringer of fire and light, rather than in his more satanic incarnation, although there are times, particularly in the third and final movements, when the music almost feels possessed by some kind of demonic spirit. Yet the Suite also shares Nielsen’s earlier preoccupations with Baroque counterpoint, Mozartian elegance, and Haydnesque inventiveness: it is amongst Nielsen’s most powerfully diverse and eclectic works.

This dual sense of childlike innocence and devilish improvisation is brought to the foreground in the Three Piano Pieces Op 59, which Nielsen composed in 1928 but which were not published until 1937, six years after his death. Contemporary with the sixth symphony and the two late concertos for flute and clarinet, the Three Pieces sound almost like a distillation of the earlier Suite Op 45, but here there is little sense of a carefully crafted tonal process. Although the third piece ends dramatically with a craggy fanfare in E flat major, the final bars are effective precisely because they are unexpected and largely unprepared. Rather, it is the music’s sense of characterization—almost like a piece of abstract music-theatre—that is the work’s structural driving force. Hence, Nielsen can be heard as paralleling tendencies in the work of two great Continental modernists from the younger generation—Schoenberg and Stravinsky—even as he approaches the end of his own creative life. At times the Three Pieces are Nielsen’s most challenging and innovative work, but there is little sense of stylistic tension or strain, rather the continuation of a process of invention and imagination that had been apparent from his very earliest piano compositions.

It seems fitting, somehow, that Nielsen’s final piano composition should belong to the first category of works—pieces composed for children or amateur players. Despite his status, at the end of his professional career, as Denmark’s most important and internationally celebrated composer, Nielsen maintained a strong sense of social commitment to the wider musical community. The collection of short pieces, Piano Music for Young and Old (Klavermusik for små og store) Op 53, which Nielsen wrote in 1930 can be heard as his ultimate contribution to a genre that stretches as far back as Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier. The collection consists of two books, of twelve numbers each, arranged in tonal pairs (major and relative minor) according to the cycle of fifths. Some of the pieces, including the first, are based on five-finger exercises or other patterns, whereas others, such as the seventh (a bright A major toy march) are miniature character pieces. At times it is possible to identify echoes of larger works—the twelfth piece (Adagio drammatico) in G sharp minor which closes the first book, for example, resembles a scaled-down version of the Molto adagio from the Suite Op 45. But more often there is a sense of originality and uniqueness—of ideas perfectly suited to their size and venue. The eminent Danish pianist Herman D Koppel performed the complete set in Copenhagen on 27 October 1930. In a review of the concert, one critic wrote: ‘His educational pieces, just as evidently as his larger works, reveal the range of his genius, because they exemplify the most difficult thing of all—greatness in miniature.’

Nielsen’s piano music encompasses the full diversity and range of his creative output. Though he never aspired to brilliance as a performer, his piano works are nevertheless marked by his intimate knowledge of the instrument and his awareness of its creative and expressive capabilities. From the symbolist-inspired music of the 1890s, through the series of powerful and original works in the 1910s, to the high modernist Three Pieces and his final series of teaching compositions, Nielsen’s piano works constantly attest to the richness of his imaginative vision.

Daniel Grimley © 2008

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