Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Elizabeth Nielsen plays Bach, Schumann and Prokofiev

I was delighted to receive this CD of piano music played by the young and exceptionally talented Danish pianist Elisabeth Nielsen. She could not have chosen a better programme to suit my taste than if I had devised it myself.  She begins with my favourite English Suite by Bach, continues with a highly romantic offering from Schumann and concludes with the challenging (for pianist and listener) ‘War ’Sonata No.6 by Prokofiev. 
J.S Bach wrote a set of six English Suites (BWV 806-11) for harpsichord. It is hard now to understand why they were titled ‘English’ however one suggestion from Bach’s early biographer Forkel is that they were composed for an English nobleman. Certainly, they bear little resemblance to contemporary Suites written at that time in England. Another view is that they nod to the French composer Charles Dieupart’s keyboard suites which opened with an overture rather than a prelude. Dieupart was working in Britain at that time.
The A minor Suite (BWV 807) is the second of the series and has seven movements including two ‘bourées.’  I found that Elisabeth Nielsen played this Suite with considerable skill, understanding and flair. I particularly enjoyed the tarantella-like ‘gigue’ and the deeply moving and thoughtfully played ‘sarabande.’

The suite for piano Faschingsschwank aus Wien, op.26 was composed by Robert Schumann in 1839. It was inspired by a visit he had made to Vienna the previous year. The English translation of the title is ‘Carnival Jest from Vienna.’ The work is presented in five sections which are played without a break.  The opening ‘allegro’ has a folk-song feel to it and surely represents the excited visitors arriving at the festival. Schumann has introduced a quotation from ‘La Marseillaise’ into this movement. This tune was banned in Austria at this time: it is most likely that this allusion is the ‘joke’ of the title. The second section is a beautiful ‘romanza’ which is short, sad and enigmatic. The Scherzino is vibrant and vivacious with substantial virtuosic moments. I love the ‘Intermezzo’ which is probably the most accomplished of the five movements. It is hugely romantic, fervent and has a soaring melody. This piece is often heard performed divorced from the rest of the suite. The finale is pure joy: any sadness has been banished and Schumann brings the work to a close with a ‘longing for love, humour and celebration of life.’ Elisabeth Nielsen provides a superb rendition of this delightful, but technically demanding piece.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6 is one of a trilogy of works which were composed during the Second World War. They have been designated the ‘War Sonatas’. These are challenging works and present the composer successfully balancing emotions of aggression, pessimism and confidence.  This present sonata is the longest of the series, lasting for more than 30 minutes.
The first movement is hostile. Acerbic harmonies and ‘driving’ rhythms’ make this unsettling music. It seems to lack both warmth and compassion. I am never sure what to make of the scherzo, ‘allegretto.’ This is in considerable contrast to the preceding ‘warlike’ music of the opening movement, yet there is a sarcastic edge to this rather distorted march that is quite scary. The ‘trio’ section is a little more restful.  The third movement is in considerable contrast to much that has gone before. This is much calmer, more reflective music. It is written as a long, slow waltz in 9/8 time. The concluding ‘vivace’ is designed as a ‘rondo’ with vibrant and vastly contrasting themes.  There are some backward glances to the opening movement of this work, yet this sonata concludes with considerable optimism, bearing in mind when it was composed. This Sonata requires a massive technique which Nielsen is perfectly able to supply.

The CD insert is attractively designed and includes childhood drawings by the pianist. Elisabeth Nielsen was born in Sorø, Denmark in 1993. She began to play the piano aged seven with the Ukrainian, Professor Milena Zelenetskaja. Nielsen studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music between 2008 and the present taking from both her Bachelor’s degree in classical piano performance and latterly her Master’s Diploma. She has been successful in a number of piano competitions and has given recitals in many European countries. 
The liner notes are a personal reflection by the pianist on these three works. It would have been good to have included the composers’ dates in the track listings, as well as the date of composition of each work. There is no recording date given (that I can find).
All in all, this is an excellent debut album from Danacord. I am sure that we shall be hearing more of the remarkable Elisabeth Nielsen in the near future.

J.S. BACH (1685-1750) English Suite No.2 A minor, BWV807 (c.1725)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56) Faschingsschwank aus Wien (1839-40)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Piano Sonata No.6, A major op.82 (1940)
Elisabeth Nielsen (piano)

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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