Saturday, 17 March 2012

Nielsen: Another hundred kroners' worth

...and another post does follow, straight on!

An area of Nielsen's output that gets less than its fair share of attention is his piano music. The Chaconne Op.32 is the place to plunge in here. There is a touch of the slate mine about it but that's just a surface impression. The piece (inspired by Bach's famous D minor Chaconne for solo violin) sounds an austere note at the very start - a ground bass of the kind it's not hard to imagine could have found a place in Bach's Art of Fugue - but, despite a dazzling display of brain-power (and finger power), this is a work of joyous fantasy, grippingly paced, so that it can cascade from variation to variation one minute and linger lovingly the next. Its sense of purpose is inspiring and its invention, which in its variety may be compared to Brahms, is brimming with pleasing things. Take the first variation (of twenty). It sounds a bit like a Bach counter-melody and yet has all the hallmarks of a lovable Nielsen tune. More lovable Nielsen-style tunes emerge from time to time. One melancholy variation (an absolute gem) marked by a 'falling third' motif sits at the heart of the set, just before the most exciting variations begin their run. The chaconne ends in exquisite ripples. 

Its equal is the Piano Suite, Op.45. This used to bear the subtitle 'The Luciferian', in the sense of the Bringer of Light rather than the Prince of Darkness! There is a sweep and a grandeur to some of the music that makes helps sense of that epithet. The opening Allegretto un pochettino begins coolly and calmly with a typical Nielsen melody against a no-less-typical counter-melody but soon chromatic figures rise in the left hand against lightning-like figures high in the right hand, resulting in a superbly stormy passage. This dies away gradually and the opening music returns, only to be assailed by echoes of this storm. The close is gentle but ambiguous. The second movement, marked Poco moderato, is strange and magical, shivering like a star on a icy night. This piece exploits the piano's high registers and sets a rocking motion against a melody that later becomes a duet of great if chilly beauty. Only one brief but powerful climax disrupts the unearthly spell that has been cast here. Next comes a Molto adagio e patetico, a dramatic tour-de-force that opens fortissimo with a grand theme, presented passionately, and whose flow of intense melody proceeds through storms and mystical lulls (and many unusual harmonies) very powerfully. The fourth movement's marking Allegretto innocente, like the 'semplice' (simple) marking in the Sixth Symphony's subtitle, is misleading. Yes it starts innocently enough with a gentle tune in F sharp major, but this tonal clarity is soon obscured. High registers again give this number an ethereal quality. The following Allegretto vivo combines delicacy with strength, caprice with conviction and, like Pan and Syrinx, shows Nielsen importing impressionistic elements without damaging his distinctive style. The suite's final movement, Allegro non troppo ma vigoroso, is the work's most sweepingly virtuosic movement. Its incisive rhythms and dynamic repeated notes generate considerable momentum.

After all that heaven-storming intensity, you might then like to try the Serenato in vano for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass. It couldn't be more different in mood, being full of charm and Nielsen's dry wit. At the heart of the piece is the moonlit 'serenade' itself - a beautiful tune of the kind only the composer could write. Alas the serenade is 'in vain' and at the end the musicians slink away, but still in good spirits. Setting this genial little piece next to the rigorous Chaconne and the Piano Suite hopefully proves the sheer range of Carl Nielsen.

Two more overtures to finish. Firstly the Helios Overture. The opening passage sets horns calling (one in octaves, one in sevenths) over a deep pedal, depicting the rising of the sun. It's wonderfully primordial, isn't it? The sound gradually gets richer until a six-note figure emerges from it. This is an aptly warm and uplifting little idea that spread plenty of magic as it rises to a majestic climax. The splendour of this fabulous first section isn't really matched by the remainder of the piece.

Even better is the 'rhapsody overture' An Imaginary Journey to the Faroes. This also begins atmospherically, depicting the islands coming into view through a mist of low strings. Fog horns, distant fanfares and bird-calls pierce the stillness and a trombone begins a melody before the fantasy ship arrives to two horns and a hymn. This whole section is a carefully-staged slow crescendo. This hymn then sounds out resplendently on full strings, with wind counter-melodies, and climaxes impressively. After a short pause a drum brings forth a boisterous and brightly-scored folk dance. This is very ear-catching, especially when the timpani and percussion go their own way, sounding like a fireworks display. After this enjoyable and invigorating section, a wind band takes over and there's a little fugato on the tune that brings us towards the gentle and atmospheric close.

And talking of closes...

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