This is a timely re-issue – to mark the 150th-anniversary of the birth of Great Dane Carl Nielsen (although his music is welcome during any year) and to remember the late John McCabe’s skills as a pianist.
McCabe (21 April 1939-13 February 2015) invests much insight into this Nielsen collection, beginning with the clangour of the Festival Prelude for the New Century. There are also miniatures, each attractive, forming the Piano Music for Young and Old (aimed at amateur pianists). Not everything is here, however, for example the Piano Piece in C from the last year of Nielsen’s life, 1931, but all the major stuff is present – and quite wonderful it is too: individual and engrossing.
Maybe the Symphonic Suite (1894) is derivative of Bach, Brahms and Grieg but the four movements alternate weight, lightness and exquisiteness, and the earlier (1890) Five Pieces are equally formal if again appealing, often being dance-like or picturesque. The Humoresque Bagatelles are as entertaining (and as whimsical) as the title implies, and Dance of the Handmaidens is a winsome one-minute’s worth.
It is the later music that represents pearls, the composer now his inimitable and adventurous self. The first of the Three Piano Pieces (1928) may allude to Debussy and Bartók but could not be mistaken for either. This is Nielsen exploring, aware of the music and trends around him but never aping. The Suite (1919), written between the mighty Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, presents amazing invention, rich in detail and in harmonic surprises; at once modern but with tradition in tow. The Chaconne (1916), through numerous sleights of hand, grows and grows in elaboration and strength, taking the willing listener with it, all the way. Completed a year later, the Theme with Variations, the longest continuous piece here (17 minutes) is fascinatingly diverse (wild at times, solemn at others) while being unified through gravitating between B minor and G minor. The score also contains a probably unique marking, come ubbriaco (“as though drunk”).
This is an excellent release. Bob Auger’s original sound – present, clear and truthful – has been sympathetically re-mastered by Paul Arden-Taylor (ignore the DDD advice on the annotation though!) and Robert Matthew-Walker provides an authoritative booklet note. Finally, to John McCabe; the biggest compliment that I can pay him is that throughout this Nielsen recital I was hooked on the music. It may not all be great (if never less than worthwhile) but when it is it really is quite something.