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The Golden Age
Niels W. GADE (1817-1890)
Nordiske Tonebilleder, op. 4 (Nordic Tone Pictures) (1842) [8:38]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Bilder aus Osten, op. 66 (Pictures from the East) (1848) [19:15]
Niels W. GADE
Tre Karakterstykker, op. 18 (Three Character Pieces) (1848) [9:55]
Brude-Vals (Bridal Waltz) (arr. Axel Grandjean, 1889) [2:35]
Fødselsdag-Polonaise (Birthday Polonaise) [1:18]
Brude-og Sølvbryllupsvals (Bridal and Silver Wedding Anniversary Waltz) (1889) [1:09]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasia in F minor, op. 103/D 940 (1828) [20:00]
Copenhagen Piano Duo (Tonya Lemoh, Cathrine Penderup)
rec. Copenhagen, 2017

This captivating new CD from Danacord features several rarely-heard pieces for piano duet by the Danish romantic composer, Niels W. Gade. These are accompanied by Robert Schumann’s Pictures from the East, op.66 and Franz Schubert’s well-known Fantasia in F minor, op. 103/D 940.

Niels Wilhelm Gade was born in Copenhagen on 22 February 1817. It is not too much to state that he was the founder of the modern school of Scandinavian composers including Sibelius, Nielsen and Grieg. Gade made his debut as a violinist in 1833. He played in the Royal Orchestra. After composition and theory lessons with Andreas Peter Berggreen, he discovered Danish folk music and poetry. His first compositional success was the Scottish-infused Echoes from Ossian, which gained first prize in a competition organised by the Copenhagen Musical Society. It was first heard in 1841. A government scholarship enabled Gade to travel to Germany and Italy. He became acquainted with Mendelssohn, who had premiered his Symphony No. 1 in 1843. After a spell as the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Gade returned to Denmark where he took up the post of Director of the Copenhagen Conservatory and as Conductor of the Musical Society. The composer died in his birthplace on 21 December 1890.

Niels Gade produced eight symphonies, several overtures, a violin concerto, much chamber music and many works for pianoforte and organ. His genius was his ability to fuse the prevalent German romantic style with the native Danish folk music.

I am beholden to the excellent liner notes (no by-line) for my commentary on the Gade works. A good place to begin to explore these is with the “confetti”. Start with the Brude-Vals (Bridal Waltz) from his ballet, Et Folkesagn (A Folk Tale). This is one of those delightful pieces that makes the world a better place. In fact, it was to become the composer’s best-known piece, a favourite of wedding parties in Denmark. Then try the two little miniatures Fødselsdag-Polonaise (Birthday Polonaise) and Brude-og Sølvbryllupsvals (Bridal and Silver Wedding Anniversary Waltz). The latter was written in 1899 for the tobacconist and art collector Heinrich Hirschsprung. No details of the Birthday Polonaise have survived. They are just enjoyable pieces.

The Nordiske Tonebilleder, op. 4 (Nordic Tone Pictures) (1842) were composed around the time of the Echoes of Ossian and Symphony No. 1. They are dedicated to the actress, Anna Nielsen (1803-1856). It does not take much knowledge of piano repertoire to detect the influence of Felix Mendelssohn on this music. However, they are also characterised by Gade’s interest in the romance of the Nordic countries. The three pieces, allegro risoluto, allegretto quasi andantino and allegro comodo, are competent numbers that reflect Gade’s growing confidence and personal voice.

Six years later the Tre Karakterstykker, op. 18 (Three Character Pieces) were written in Copenhagen. They were dedicated to the Danish actor Michael Rosing Wiehe (1820-1864). The liner notes explain that (for better or worse) Gade had moved away from the inspiration of the Nordic lands and had absorbed the Germanic style of Schubert and Spohr. The mood of these three pieces is largely militaristic: The Departure [to war], The Battlefield and The Homecoming. If I am honest, I dumped the implied programme and simply enjoyed these exciting (if not ground-breaking) pieces as absolute music.

Robert Schumann wrote the relatively rarely heard Bilder aus Osten, op. 66 (Pictures from the East) in 1848. The inspiration came from a book the composer found in the library of the German artist Eduard Bendemann. It was Friedrich Rückert’s translation of The Maqāmāt of Al-Hariri of Basra, a collection of 50 poems. The suite was presented to Schumann’s wife Clara as a gift, and was dedicated to Bendemann’s wife Lida. Schumann made musical use of the Arabic literary device called a maqamat, which combines prose and poetry, word riddles and rhymes. Schumann did not give Arabic titles to his six impromptus but merely instructions for playing, such as lively, like a folksong and not fast. If there is a story suggested for these pieces, it is not explicit. It is up to the listener to provide their own tale. It is interesting that Schumann himself suggested that the hero of these poems, a certain Abu Seid, could be likened to the well-known German rogue Eulenspiegel. These six impromptus do not reveal any new developments in Schumann’s musical style, but they are rewarding to the listener. There is certainly nothing musically eastern in these pieces.

Franz Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor, op. 103/D 940, is a masterpiece of the piano duet repertoire, and surely one of his greatest achievements. He composed it during the early months of 1828, and performed it first with his friend Franz Lachner on 9 May of that year. It was dedicated to Schubert’s pupil, Caroline Esterhazy, the object of his unrequited love. The Fantasia is presented in four sections, played without a break. The opening allegro molto moderato is restrained, sad and ultimately poised, but this is succeeded by a stormy largo full of passion and authority. The Scherzo: allegro vivace gives some respite from the intensity of the tempest, although it is not all lightness. The finale is designed as an immense double-fugue, which is anything but academic or pedantic in its exposition.

The Copenhagen Piano Duo, which consists of Tonya Lemoh and Cathrine Penderup, bring huge technical and artistic skills to this varied piano duet repertoire. Their performances are vivacious, filled with understanding and sympathy. It is excellent to have the complete works of Gade for piano duet: the composer could not wish for better advocates of his music. The brilliantly executed Schumann and Schubert works are hugely enjoyable bookends to Gade’s music. Altogether a splendid new CD.

John France


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