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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80 (1806) [10:55]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Chaconne, op.32 (1917) [9:32]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Carnaval (1834-35) [31:07]
Elisabeth Nielsen (piano)
rec. Concert Hall of the Royal Danish Academy of Music, 2017

In 2015, I reviewed Elisabeth Nielsen’s debut album (DACOCD 761) for MusicWeb International. Tracks included Bach’s English Suite No.2 in A minor, BWV 807, Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien and Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6, op.82. I was impressed with Nielsen’s playing and interpretation of these works and looked forward to subsequent releases. This present album, again from Danacord, worthily fulfils these hopes.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80 were sketched out in 1806 and published the following year. Three things mark these variations. Firstly, they are extremely concentrated in their exposition and development. The ‘theme’ is an eight-bar section in which the melodic and harmonic implications of the left-hand chords provide most of the work’s material. Secondly, the piece parodies a ‘baroque’ chaconne or a passacaglia, with each of the subsequent variations deriving its unity from the scant material of the opening. Variations 12-17 act as a kind of ‘slow movement’ with the extended coda, beginning at Variation 31, providing a powerful conclusion. And finally, as James Friskin once remarked, these variations have “a special place in the student’s pianistic development” as they contain a “compendium of the elements of a well-rounded technique”. Robert Schumann declared that each ‘variation’ was a ‘study’ or ‘etude’. However, there is nothing pedantic about this music. Elisabeth Nielsen controls brilliantly these variations which display a wide ranging and ‘crazy’ variety.

I have not consciously heard Carl Nielsen’s Chaconne, op.32. I listened through thrice, and realised what a masterpiece I have been missing. Clearly modelled on the Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin, BWV 1004, the composer hoped that his piano piece would become as famous as Bach’s. He even wrote it in the same key. Alas, the current CD statistics speak for themselves. Bach has 207 listings for the original violin piece, plus 48 for Ferruccio Busoni’s great transcription for piano: 14 only for Carl Nielsen’s Chaconne.

The Chaconne opens with a thoughtful theme. The following variations are of variable difficulty and sometimes bear little relation to the theme. The main climax of the work sounds like a massive peal of bells. After this violent outburst, the coda provides a marvellous latticework of running demi-semi quavers that eventually disappear into nothingness.

Elisabeth Nielsen makes a telling remark in the liner notes: she states that “one won’t find a single child in Denmark, who didn’t grow up with the music of Carl Nielsen…” One wishes one could say that about Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar or Benjamin Britten in the United Kingdom.

Robert Schumann’s Carnaval needs few words of introduction; nevertheless, a couple of notes may give the music context. The work, which was composed between 1834-35 (not 1834-45, as stated in the (English) liner notes) is subtitled “Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes” which translates as ‘dainty (or little) scenes on four notes.’ I am not sure that ‘cute’ as suggested in the liner notes is an ideal rendering of ‘mignonnes.’ Much of the work is derived from the four notes: A-S-C-H (A-Eb-C-B in English notation). The listener must realise that Asch (now Aš) was the home of Ernestine von Fricken (1816-44) who was at that time Schumann’s fiancée. The work was composed shortly before the engagement was ended. Carnaval consists of 21 short pieces, each (apart from the concluding March) portraying well-known characters from the musical or theatrical world. Examples include ‘Pierrot’, ‘Arlequin’, ‘Coquette’ and the composers ‘Chopin’ and ‘Paganini’. Folk nearer to Schumann included Ernestine, portrayed as ‘Estrella’, Clara (his wife, married in 1837) as ‘Chiarina’, and two contrasting moods of the composer himself as ‘Eusebius’ and ‘Florestan’. The knack of successfully interpreting this work is to understand the diverse and often mythic personalities that have accrued to these characters, and Schumann’s realisation of them in music. This has been admirably achieved by the present recitalist in this sparkling performance.

In my review of Elisabeth Nielsen’s previous album I remarked on the ‘chatty’ nature of her programme notes. I felt a little more history and analysis would have been useful. She has gone a long way in satisfying this wish, but still includes many personal thoughts in the text - which is no bad thing. Composers’ dates would have been helpful. Nielsen has also included several photographs of herself at different times of her life, as well as a couple of extracts from Schumann’s score. The notes are given in Danish and English.

Elisabeth Nielsen was born in Sorø, Denmark in 1993. She began to play the piano aged seven with the Ukrainian, Professor Milena Zelenetskaia. Nielsen studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music between 2008 and 2014, taking both her Bachelor’s degree in classical piano performance and latterly her Master’s Diploma. In 2016, she completed an advanced postgraduate diploma under Professor Marianna Shirinyan. Nielsen has been successful in several piano competitions and has given recitals in many European countries.

This is an altogether satisfying album. The playing of these three works shows technical skill, imagination and total sympathy with each composer and their diverse styles. Danacord’s sound recording is splendid, as expected.

From a personal point of view, I was delighted to discover Carl Nielsen’s Chaconne, and wonder how this work has eluded me for nearly half a century of musical listening.

John France


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