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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline


Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Complete Piano Music
CD 1
Five Piano Pieces Op.3 (1890) [8:13]
Symphonic Suite Op.8 (1894) [18:24]
Humoresque-Bagatelles Op.11 (1894-97) [6:21]
Festival Prelude for the New Century FS 24 (1900) [1:18]
A Dream about ‘Silent Night’ FS 34 (1905) [2:17]
Chaconne Op.32 (1916) [10:29]
Theme and Variations Op.40 (1917) [15:22]
CD 2
Suite Op.45 (1919-20) [26:33]
Three Piano Pieces Op.59 (1928) [12:03]
Piano Music for Young and Old, Books I & II Op.53 (1930) [28:04]
Piano Piece FS 159 (1931) [0:34]
Christina Bjørkøe (piano)
rec. ‘Den Sorte Diamant’ (The Black Diamond) Copenhagen, July 2-3 2007 and 21-22 August 2007.
CPO 7774132 [66:12 + 67:29]


Experience Classicsonline

The photo of Christina Bjørkøe in the booklet for this release has been placed next to one of Carl Nielsen at the piano – not by chance, I feel, since they both share the same impish grin and impression of lively curiosity and creativity. Having recently looked into the same music played by Martin Roscoe on the Hyperion label, I still felt quite in tune with Nielsen’s piano work when approaching this new release from CPO.

I very much liked Roscoe’s recording, and set it above Hyperion’s earlier outing in this repertoire with Mina Miller, but only by an increasingly dwindling margin when I started re-adjusting to Miller’s sense of drama and contrast. Having placed Roscoe as top dog mere months ago, I now however find myself faced with a new release which seems to push the boundaries even further.

Christina Bjørkøe takes a good 15 minutes longer than Roscoe over the entire programme, and takes a consistently broader view of much of the music. This is often not so much the result of significantly slower tempi, but a willingness to allow light and breathing space through at certain moments or for extended passages, at other times building up monumental strength, in a similar way to that notable recording of Nielsen’s 5th Symphony conducted by Rafael Kubelik. Bjørkøe has poetry and lightness of touch in the Five Piano Pieces Op.3, throwing more rubato than Roscoe in movements such as the Humoreske. I’m not always a guaranteed fan of pulling music around in this way, but Bjørkøe does it in such a winning and stylish way that I was sold immediately. There is a ‘way’ with this kind of music which feels right, and while there might be dances which take on a different meaning with this kind of playing one can sense the spirit of Grieg and other Nordic composers nodding in sage approval.

Unlike both Hyperion artists, Bjørkøe does play these pieces in chronological order, the booklet notes pointing out that in the span of Nielsen’s career he was able to present his first symphony to Brahms, and was working on his sixth as Shostakovich was on his first. The Symphonic Suite Op.8 followed on from Nielsen’s successful first symphony, but while sharing some thematic relations with that work it also inhabits a closer-knit and more intense, nervy world. Bjørkøe does linger over some moments more than other players, but does maintain a natural, narrative feel to the music, bringing out themes and lyrical lines and often giving the piece greater appeal than I had previously given it credit. Listening to the penultimate Andante and final Allegro you get a feel for the orchestral nature of the music – Nielsen’s ears still ringing with the sound of his symphony and reluctant to leave it behind entirely. Bjørkøe allows the music to develop in much the same way you can imagine a conductor handling and orchestral score – taking and giving back, reinforcing tension and scattering resolved tonalities like seeds on a ploughed field.

Bjørkøe’s view of the Humoresque-Bagatelles is that they are hardly bagatelles at all, throwing in technical fireworks and emphasising the emotive extremes in even the most simple sounding of pieces. The Dukke-Marsch is arguably taken too slow to be a proper march, but if you can imagine this as the over-emphatic, preening walk of a highly decorated martinet on full public view then this can work as well as any other interpretation. There’s not much you can do with the Festival Prelude for the New Century than blast it out like an orchestral tutti, and that’s what Bjørkøe does. Paired with the Dream about ‘Silent Night’, it heightens the gentle poetry of the latter.

The remarkable Chaconne Op.32 sees Nielsen at first having fun with the ideas, and then as the span of the work becomes more serious, getting more and more involved in the working out of solutions both pianistic and compositionally technical. Bjørkøe hears all of this, and gives the music all of the space it deserves, layering textures, presenting thematic relationships without labouring the point, and urging us to see the humour in the piece as well as its wild excesses and magnificent single span. The upward runs towards the end create a quite magical effect.

The Theme and variations Op.40 followed closely on the heels of the Chaconne in terms of its creation, and after its Brahmsian opening takes off almost immediately into improbable realms. Weaving though the twists and turns of this labyrinth of a piece is once again a joy of intense contrast and verdant wonder under Bjørkøe’s fingers. It’s hard work, as the music is constantly demanding out attention, never letting us relax and feel we can ‘switch off’ for a few moments. I love Bjørkøe’s contrasting articulation in this piece, and while she can give the most penetrating staccato her touch is always controlled – the all important dynamic outer limits held for just a very few significant notes. The depths of funereal gloom in the central variations really are deep – dark through understatement, the notes being allowed to say it all and in their own good time. Without wanting to labour the point, this is a magnificent recording and certainly the best performance of this piece I’ve ever heard, right up to the carefully weighed final notes and chords.

Disc 2 opens with the Suite Op.45. Bjørkøe takes seriously Nielsen’s own description of the first movement, that it should be “cold and brittle in tone and in a peacefully flowing tempo...” The alliance of cold and warmth, even that of leaping flames, can be traced to an original sketch which is headed ‘Ild og Vand’, or ‘Fire and Water.’ The second movement is taken at a slower pace than I’ve heard it done elsewhere, but the mixture of colours and sonorities works equally well; played “with the tenderest tone and subtlest pedalling, as though listening.” The Molto adagio e patetico opens and continues very molto, stretching some of the rhythmic relationships to the limit – but it works, and keeps you on the edge of your seat. This is one movement where timings are of interest, with Roscoe coming in at 4:45 and Bjørkøe at 7:17. Make of this what you will, but I find she makes this one of Nielsen’s most memorable movements, certainly in terms of the piano works. Bjørkøe’s touch in the restrained fourth and fifth movements is marvellous, and demonic and moving in the final Allegro non troppo ma vigoroso, though never losing that attractive transparency of touch which makes me want to hear her in all kinds of other repertoire.

The Three Piano Pieces Op.59 are in places more overtly pianistic than many of Nielsen’s other piano pieces, and Bjørkøe takes the opportunity to flex her chops while keeping true to her fellow countryman’s style and idiom. The mixture of Debussy-esque colour, quasi traditional piano writing and temptingly avant-garde moments are a heady mixture which Bjørkøe relishes. This is a potent work hiding under the cover of a very innocent title, and this pianist brings out the best of it from start to finish.

The Piano Pieces for Young and Old are as much part of Nielsen’s own self declared credo of ‘clarity, simplicity and strength’ as any of his other works. Again, Bjørkøe takes each miniature as a jewel in its own right, not imposing artificial significance on straightforward exercises, but nonetheless imbuing each with its own musical power and expressive weight in an unfussy, unmannered, but entirely compelling fashion. The same goes for the little Piano Piece, a minor flourish, but genuine Nielsen for all that.

For those interested, the cover art for this release is a painting from around 1898/1902 by Vilhelm Hammershøi, whose atmospheric, silent interiors are most certainly worth further investigation. As if you hadn’t guessed already, I am entirely sold on this new set of Nielsen’s piano music, and would recommend it to anyone wanting to explore beyond the symphonies. The recording is rich and full, the piano sound of demonstration quality, and captured close enough to reveal a whiff the felt dampers rising with the pedal, but also with a sympathetic spaciousness and a pleasant, non-intrusive resonance. I would also recommend this recording to anyone who has tried Nielsen’s piano works and found them ‘hard going’. No, they are not always the easiest of works, but listeners should find they get out of the pieces as much as they invest in terms of their own efforts, and Christina Bjørkøe rewards us at every turn. Do I prefer this to Martin Roscoe’s Hyperion set? Yes, but, as I found Mina Miller’s set to be complimentary to Roscoe’s, I also find Roscoe’s complimentary to Bjørkøe’s in many ways and certainly won’t want to be without it in the future. You may not always want the real extremes which Bjørkøe gives to the music, and some may not find these aspects of her playing entirely convincing. I do however, and find going back to other players that I miss the intensity and variety of expression Bjørkøe finds in the music. She has Nielsen under her skin in a way I’ve never heard before, and it’s been a real revelation. Sorry guys – but I urge you, buy Danish.

Dominy Clements


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