Carl Nielsen: Complete Piano Music

Martin Roscoe (Hyperion CDA67591/2)

14 July 2008 4 stars

Nielsen Piano WorksComplete musical surveys of any nature necessarily require the sacrifice of programming discretion to the pursuit of total coverage. Such surveys often come across as academic and pragmatic, and are best taken in the piecemeal spirit in which they are intended. This is indeed the case with Hyperion's recent release of Martin Roscoe playing Carl Nielsen's complete piano works.

The set, whilst uniformly well played, generally well engineered, and always poetically realised, suffers from the inclusion of extremely lightweight sketches such as the Piano Piece, the Festival Prelude, and A Dream about Silent Night.  The double disc release also struggles to overcome the disparities of tone the listener experiences between these slender interludes, the much more dramatic and substantial pieces such as the Suite, Op. 45 or the Chaconne, Op. 32, and the rather didactic (though still very enjoyable) two books of the Piano Music for Young and Old set.

However, as I have said, a collection of this nature should not be taken on the same terms as those of a carefully selected and paced conventional release, and as such despite the above reservations it is clear that Roscoe's committed playing of these works amounts to a very satisfying and significant release.

Roscoe begins in peremptory mood with the fanfare–like opening to the highly original Symphonic Suite, Op. 8. Straight away the pianist establishes his supple tone, his firmness of gesture, and his ability to carefully manage Nielsen's repetitive and cumulative musical structures. The second movement develops this blueprint by adding contrasts of dynamics and a much more embedded developmental technique. Roscoe brings humour and insight here and in the subsequent movements to Nielsen's unique admixture of almost Satie-like formal gaucheness and tonal extension, and Beethovenian self-dramatisation. The pianist shows a more intimate touch in the slow third movement where he very convincingly conducts an engaging dialogue between expressive cantabile playing on the one hand, and more forthright and vertiginous articulation on the other. His refined pedalling technique serves as an effective tool of mediation between these two modes. The finale draws together earlier strands in an exciting conclusion that in this performance comes across as confident, vigorous and precise. Roscoe's final cadence plays with just the right mix of joyous tenuto and monumental exhaustion.

Nielsen Piano WorksDespite Roscoe's faithful advocacy of the three shorter pieces mentioned above (his highly expressive rubato in the Silent Night piece almost overwhelms the thinness of the material), they never come across as anything more than pleasant trifles. The two books of the Piano Music for Young and Old, Op. 53 fare better, thanks both to Roscoe's graceful touch and superb technique, and also to Nielsen's subtly fresh way with harmony, counterpoint, texture, and structure (even in these miniatures that rarely last over a minute one is always surprised by the flexibility of the phrases and the discretion of the frameworks). From the jolly and mischievous little rondos of numbers 3a and 7, to the more reserved counterpoint of number 19, to the legato styling of numbers 15 and 20, to the condensed and antiphonal drama of numbers 18 and 24, the pianist always displays a forceful clarity, married to an expressive flexibility, that ultimately proves winning. These two books, despite the brevity of their component parts, amount in this interpretation to a satisfying if loosely related jaunt through a gifted musical mind in a free and plural mood.

The Humoresque-bagatelles, Op. 11, are more consistently jubilant than the similarly proportioned Op. 53 (though there are only 6 parts in Op. 11). The opening Hello! Hello! is delightfully carefree, and Roscoe wrings every ounce of dazzle from the self-explanatory Spinning Top. Throughout, the pianist shows a refined technique and an effective style of phrasing that stamps his interpretation with enough flair and syntactical movement to imbue these short pieces with a tremendous sense of creativity and occasion. The clarity and subtle dynamics of his performance of The Jumping Jack is a highlight. The deceptively simple and always charming early suite of Five Piano Pieces, Op. 3 is more lyrical than the collections already mentioned, though inklings of Nielsen's symphonic manner always suggest themselves. These five pieces display a more innocent, more materially conservative composer than the one that was to emerge, though the freshness of the musical ideas and the effectiveness of their compositional execution belie any notion of callowness the listener might have. Roscoe's tactful and sympathetic playing communicates to us a youthful creativity that was clearly on the brink of something profound. 

That profundity can be found in great measure in the remaining works on this release, namely the Chaconne Op. 32, the Suite, Op. 45, the Theme and Variations, Op. 40, and the posthumously published Three Piano Pieces, Op. 59. Roscoe's reading of Nielsen's Opus 32 is astonishing in its range of tonal colour, its exciting crescendos that never sacrifice local goals to the more general flow of the piece, its broad emotional breadth, and its utterly clear depiction of the clashing inner voices of the work. The different modes of attack and articulation the pianist simultaneously brings to the keyboard are often bewildering, and his transition from precise force to lyrical calm and repose in the final bars is entirely overwhelming. The expansiveness of the thematic development in the Chaconne is mirrored in the diverse material of the Suite, Op. 45, which veers from a Teutonic, empfindsamkeit fervour in the opening and closing movements to an outwardly simplistic stroll in the fourth, to an impressionistic delicacy in the second, to a menacing languor in the third. Again Roscoe's accounts are almost uniformly persuasive, with his ability to inhabit two different emotional arenas with left and right hand impressing, particularly in the opening movement. The flexibility of his technique is at times wondrous, and he always appears in complete command of the momentum of the music. His repeated left hand descent in the second half of the opening movement, written in short but expanding little motifs of only a few notes, is a quite precise demonstration of his unique ability to display the strongest contrast of tone and attack quite suddenly and arrestingly. If his performance of the tantalizing second movement is at times too forthright, his interpretative attitude there at least aligns itself with that displayed elsewhere in the Suite, where he excels in communicating an engaging balance of drama and Biedermeier intimacy.

The Theme and Variations, Op. 45 is a quite pedantic rehearsal of various variation techniques that only really gets going in its final few variations, especially in the inventive final variation, where collage-like cluster chords (sometimes heard as glissandos) in the right hand are set against an augmented and varied form of the theme in the left. The conclusion of this movement quite unexpectedly moves to a hushed and clarified version of the theme, which Roscoe enlivens with a clear sense of abandon and fancy. Where the earlier variations had appeared effortful, despite Roscoe's intelligence and commitment, the final sections display a verve and originality that the pianist revels in; he brings to the work a much-needed plurality of voice and a lightness of sentiment that undercuts the surface storm often in evidence.

The disc concludes with the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 59. Whilst these pieces hardly merit the description of ‘high modernist' given by Daniel Grimley in the sleeve notes, they are nevertheless more discontinuous in syntax, more fragmented in rhythm, and more dissonant in tonality than the other works to surprise the unwitting listener, and also to require a subtly different mode of interpretation. And whilst the expected move into a kind of abstraction of expression certainly occurs in his performance, Roscoe maintains the dynamic flair and dramatic nuance he had so convincingly displayed earlier. His prolonged pause before his commencement of the tumultuous middle section of the opening piece, which he plays with great force and precision, is a good example of the way he instils his interpretation with energy and individuality. The way also that he gradually eases off in force in the conclusion of the same movement has a similar effect. The more fragmented middle piece (which like the first is about three minutes long) moves between various moods, from the explosive dissonance of the opening to the sustained, stripped down diatonic conclusion. Roscoe as can be expected excels in the contrasts and very playfully draws out the music's poetry of conflict. The finale, which is like the other movements essentially tonally directed with a local importance of a violent and expressionistic dissonance, exhibits the composer's strong affinity with conflicting but ultimately resolving panels of material. Roscoe's performance of this movement displays the refined and intelligent musicality, aligned with a keen sense of drama and a total commitment to the material, which has been his custom throughout this fine collection.     


By Stephen Graham