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Friedrich KUHLAU (1786-1832)
Piano Quartet No 3 in G minor, Op 108 [36:51]
Otto MALLING (1848-1915)
Piano Quartet in C minor, Op 80 [27:29]
Copenhagen Piano Quartet
rec. 2015/16, Concert Hall, the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen
Stereo/Multi-channel, CD layer reviewed
DACAPO 6.220591 SACD [64:22]

If you’ve learnt the piano, the chances are that somewhere along the line you might have played the Sonatina in C, Op 20 No 1, by Kuhlau – or at least the opening Allegro. Stylistically it very much inhabits the world of early Mozart, but, while a nice little concert piece for the young pianist, it hardly sets the world alight.

If you start reading Jens Cornelius’s most-informative sleeve-notes (in English and Danish) before playing this new release from Copenhagen-based Dacapo Records, you might be forgiven for thinking that Kuhlau’s Piano Quartet isn’t going to be too special, either. After all, while the composer did stand out from the crowd, this was mainly because he was in fact German-born, and never learnt Danish – and unfortunately he’d also lost his right eye at the tender age of seven, after slipping and falling on some ice. Contemporary reports describe him variously as somewhat non-conformist, fond of good company, tobacco and wine, and someone who didn’t quite fit into the more homogenous elite of his audience and patrons.

But start playing the opening track, and within seconds you will have erased any traces of that early piano Sonatina, and soon start to realise that the man described above could so easily relate to an admittedly far greater composer, and one whom Kuhlau admired so ardently – Beethoven.

The Piano Quartet No 3 in G minor (1829) is a substantial work, nearly forty minutes long, The opening ‘Allegro con molto fuoco’ – itself a slightly-paraphrased version of a typical Beethoven first-movement tempo indication – is particularly extensive, with its dramatic and clear-cut first subject, followed by a particularly expressive and lyrical second theme. As the exposition closes, there is more than a hint of Hummel’s (1778-1837) equally-effective piano-writing. After the exposition is repeated, the ensuing development showcases Kuhlau’s real mastery of fugal techniques. When he did meet Beethoven in Vienna in 1825, the two like-minded individuals spent a couple of days together, both emptying numerous bottles, while amusing themselves with tricky little canons, and other contrapuntal devices, and where Beethoven flatteringly referred to Kuhlau as ‘der groŖe Kanonier’ – the ‘great Canon-writer’.

If there was some effective fugal writing in the first movement, the second movement – a Scherzo, where the major-key, and slightly slower Trio suggests the style of a German folk-dance or Lšndler – really takes this to the next level. It’s very much the spirit of Beethoven in the ‘Adagio’ slow movement, a set of variations on a simple, yet poetic theme, where Kuhlau once again shows real originality and ingenuity in how he treats his material in an immensely poignant movement. The composer doesn’t disappoint, either, in the sonata-rondo Finale (‘Allegro poco agitato’), which has hints of Mendelssohn, as well as affording an opportunity for Kuhlau to re-introduce the theme from the slow movement, which he skilfully weaves into the contrapuntal texture.

Having so much enjoyed the first work on the CD, I was even more keen to hear Otto Malling’s Piano Quartet in C minor, written over seventy years later in 1903, especially as, unlike Kuhlau, he was a composer with whom I was as yet unfamiliar. Malling was born in Copenhagen, where he was cathedral organist, and later Director of the city’s Royal Danish Academy of Music. A student of Gade and Hartmann, he has been labelled a Danish counterpart to Saint-SaŽns, simply because, like the Frenchman, Malling started out as one of the most progressive composers in his respective country, but ended up as one of the most conservative.

Lesser in stature than Kuhlau’s work, Malling’s Piano Quartet still adheres to the conventional four-movement design. From the start of the ‘Allegro’, the seventy years or so which separate the two quartets on the CD have witnessed a change from early-Romantic, to late-Romantic style, albeit of the more conservative kind. But Malling’s work, while not overtly nationalist, does have at least a kind of Nordic flavour to it, especially at the opening, with its bare fifths. The Scherzo that follows combines a Brahmsian feel with a lighter French waltz, that would be equally at home in the salon as in the concert hall – something perhaps inspired by the then-popular ‘Norwegian’ dance-style of the Halling, which Grieg occasionally made use of. The enchanting slow movement is the emotional heart of the work, beautifully-crafted, and, as the sleeve-notes suggest, might just as easily function as a stand-alone character-piece, given its somewhat sectional construction. There are definite traits of DvořŠk here, which tends to confirm the fact that any implied nationalism is more loosely-romantic in origin, rather than specifically Danish, or even Scandinavian. But be that as it may, it’s a lovely outpouring of lyrical expression and escapism – a real gem, in fact. The Finale (‘Allegro con fuoco’) is much more business-like, but Malling seems to have aimed for a more specifically-Nordic infusion, both rhythmically and melodically, in a movement where the interplay between piano and strings is perfectly balanced. Malling certainly knows how to work both his audience and performers alike, as he builds towards a highly-effective conclusion to what was to be his last chamber work.

The sleeve-notes bear the title ‘Two of a Kind’, and, to some degree there is some commonality between the two composers heard here. But equally there are differences, and not merely as a consequence of the seventy years or so that separate the works.

This new CD is highly desirable for so many reasons. It introduces us to two more examples of piano-quartet repertoire, which, while there are many splendid scores out there already, is a genre that is generally less populated than piano trios or quintets.

It features two composers whose music, even in a small country like Denmark, is relatively less known, while their respective piano quartets are exceedingly well-crafted, highly-enjoyable to listen to, and definitely on a par with some quartets that are performed far more frequently.

The superb playing from the Copenhagen Piano Quartet has all the youthful freshness and spontaneity, yet real maturity and empathy that both works need for a successful performance. The recording is in the Hybrid SACD/CD format, but exhibits great clarity and linear definition when played on a conventional CD player. The packaging, too, is particularly impressive, with the so-described ‘Super Jewel Case’ doing a great job in physically protecting the disc.

Philip R Buttall

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