Danish Romantic Piano Trios
Peter Erasmus LANGE-MÜLLER (1853-1926)
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in F minor, Op. 53 (c. 1898) [31:42]
Niels W. GADE (1817-1890)
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in F Major, Op. 42 (1863) [22:01]
Piano Trio Movement in B flat major (1839) [12:06]
Rued LANGGAARD (1893-1952)
Fjeldblomster (Mountain Flowers), BVN 34 (1908) [9:05]
Danish Piano Trio (Lars Bjørnkjaer (violin); Toke Møldrup (cello); Katrine Gislinge (piano))
rec. 12-13, 19-21 April 2014, Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen, Denmark
DACAPO 8.226119 [74:55]
While the image on the front of the CD shows the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen in the 1890s, impressive as this is, it’s hardly going to leap out and say ‘Try Me and Buy Me’, especially from a country probably best known in the UK for its pastries than its chamber music.
That statement does a great disservice to this immensely enjoyable confection of Danish Romantic Piano Trios which features the Danish Piano Trio in their debut recording. True the genre did take its time reaching the country from Central Europe, and while Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were increasingly active in the form, there were no contemporary indigenous composers ready to take up the cause further north. In fact it was not until Niels W. Gade appeared on the scene with his Piano Trio in F, and its earlier, and incomplete stable-mate in B flat, that the form came of age in Denmark. Gade became Mendelssohn’s assistant in Leipzig, and subsequently chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra after the German composer’s death in 1847. With the outbreak of the first Danish-Prussian War the following year, Gade returned to Copenhagen. While the Nordic flavour of his music held sway in Germany, Schumann was quick to warn Gade against the ‘limitations’ of nationalism in romantic music, arguing that the artist should aim to achieve originality, before setting off down a particular nationalist musical path. Rather than stand firm to his own ideas – something which Grieg, on the other hand managed so successfully – Gade subsequently rather rationed the use of clear nationalist ideas in his music.
The Piano Trio in F owes a great deal more to Mendelssohn and Schumann that it does to Gade’s homeland. It is well-crafted and has enough melodic interest throughout to stop it sounding academic, given the conventional form of its three movements. The second is a charming and elegant scherzo, and very concise as such, as is the melancholy slow movement that follows. With its gentle 9/8 barcarolle-time this certainly brings to mind a Mendelssohn ‘Song Without Words’, as Jens Cornelius in his comprehensive sleeve notes (English and Danish) suggests. The Andantino moves straight into the brisk finale, marked Allegro con Fuoco (lively and with fire) which rounds this most easy-on-the-ear work off to sheer perfection.
Gade had made an earlier attempt in the piano-trio genre almost twenty-five years earlier and, as such, was one of the country’s first composers to do so. Only this single Movement in B flat remains – a tuneful slow section leading directly into another Allegro con fuoco. Gade’s plan was to compose a work where, according to what he wrote at the time, ‘It was to follow a programme in four movements where quotations from German poetry were the artistic fixed points. The narrative framework is about a hero who sets off in the first movement, is missed by his loved ones in the second movement, experiences danger in the third movement and returns home in the fourth movement’ – shades of Weber’s ‘Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra’, some eighteen years earlier, no less. It is indeed a pity that the score for the projected second movement was not fair-copied, the third movement only sketched out, and the finale apparently never begun, as potentially this single movement has individually more of interest to say, than parts of the complete piano trio that followed it.
While the F major Trio is without doubt the best-known work on the CD, and one that does get occasional outings in the concert-hall, Danish-based Dacapo's decision not to start with the Gade, but with the far-less-familiar Piano Trio in F minor by Lange-Müller was a masterstroke of planning. Gade continued as the ‘godfather’ of Danish music until his death in 1890, after which there was something of a lean period, before any late-romantic composer of quality emerged on the scene. Granted there was Carl Nielsen, but he gained his foothold with an altogether different style. Peter Erasmus Lange-Müller was one of the most popular Danish composers at the turn of the century, having achieved success with lieder, small piano pieces and music for the folk-tale drama ‘Der var engang’ (Once Upon A Time - review) of 1887. He was self-taught, and lacked experience with larger canvasses, but his delightful Piano Trio in F minor brings out all the very best in his writing – a great talent for melody and interesting harmony. Written while he was living in Stockholm, it is dedicated to Swedish colleagues: to Tor Aulin and to the country’s rising-star of the time Wilhelm Stenhammar.
The opening Moderato con moto, in Lange-Müller’s apparently favourite 6/8 time, reveals a chromatic restlessness and brooding tempo that together make for a somewhat sombre starting point. The second theme is not without melancholy, but does gradually liven up, taking on what Cornelius suggests a ‘surprising whiff of Paris’. This is very much the case, though not overly ‘surprising’, given the well-heeled Lange-Müller’s great penchant for travel, and probably accounts for the fact that his style is more French-inspired than German. The second movement is typical of the composer – an Intermezzo that simply oozes beauty and loveliness, and where the middle section (marked ‘scherzando’) incorporates distinct folk elements for the first time, while managing to combine this with some effective contrapuntal writing. Both themes are then successfully intertwined towards the end of the movement. The brisk finale is full of vigour, as the tempo indication suggests, where chromaticism is once more evident. There are occasional hints of modal harmony, all amid stormy episodes and some most impressive writing for each player. The climax is absolutely stupendous with a close that would surely bring every member of an audience immediately to their feet in unbridled applause. Lange-Müller’s apt self-description was ‘Twilight is and will remain my life’ – something that might also serve as his artistic motto. This stunning work gainsays this, and it is to be hoped that Dacapo will soon make available more of this composer’s unique and fascinating work.
Follow that, as they say, but again Dacapo have just hit the right spot with Rued Langgaard’s Mountain Flowers to close this CD recital. Written when the composer was a mere fifteen years old, the piece, in an orchestral version, was actually intended to be the second movement of his five-movement First Symphony which was given its first complete performance in 1913 by the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Max Fiedler. Musically this expressive single movement, with clear stylistic allegiances to Wagner and Richard Strauss, is the work of a fledgling composer who, some ten years later, had transgressed the boundaries of late romanticism and entered the realm of atonality and other avant-garde ideas. He followed this by an extended period of romantic regression, before going to the opposite extremes in the 1940s where his then-unconventional music was at odds with that of his Danish contemporaries. He became recognized only sixteen years after his death. Irrespective, Mountain Flowers remains a simple and peaceful meditation of heart-felt emotion.
The superb performances and outstanding recording make this debut CD hard to resist, and the Lange-Müller is an absolute gem. Add the spontaneity and immediate melodic appeal of the other works included here, and it provides the perfect introduction to the genre’s growth in Denmark. While its sugar content is probably greater than your average Danish pastry, you can, at least, enjoy listening to it as many times as you like, without ever putting on a single pound or kilo.
Philip R Buttall