SCHUMANN Carnaval BEETHOVEN 32 Variations
Beethoven’s chaconne-like 32 Variations in C minor and Nielsen’s Op 32 Chaconne make for interesting bedfellows. But how do these single-minded structures relate to the diverse group of characters and character pieces making up Schumann’s Carnaval? Not terribly well, programme-wise.
Be that as it may, Elisabeth Nielsen gives a forthright, tightly unified and slightly foursquare performance of the Beethoven. The fingerwork is clean but the insistent accentuations of down-beats become increasingly predictable. Still, Nielsen’s sotto voce playing conveys a compelling, almost disembodied shimmer. She unfolds Nielsen’s quirky, boundlessly creative Chaconne (inspired by Bach’s Chaconne from the D minor Solo Violin Partita) in long, cohesive and steadily cumulating arcs, creating a relatively sober, goal-oriented impression in contrast to Christina Bjørkøe’s greater rhythmic leeway and virtuosic extroversion (CPO, 4/09).
Carnaval proves less successful. Nielsen’s rigidly dispatched dotted rhythms at the opening of the ‘Préambule’ lead into an unappealingly plodding and prosaic account of the main section. The fast tempo of ‘Pierrot’ sounds impatient and the wide right-hand leaps in ‘Arlequin’ lack whimsy. But Nielsen connects with the impetuous lilt of ‘Valse noble’ and ‘Eusebius’ blossoms when the legato octaves kick in. The pianist treads too carefully in the ‘Florestan’-‘Coquette’-‘Réplique’ sequence and reduces the ‘Papillons’ to iron butterflies.
A gleam of suppleness (but just a gleam, mind you) peeks through ‘Lettres dansantes’, regressing to the stiffest, most charmless ‘Chiarina’ I’ve ever come across on disc. Nielsen sustains her fluent, headlong conception of ‘Chopin’ even when she follows ‘tradition’ by getting quiet on the repeat. ‘Valse allemande’ contains winsome elongations of phrase. The interloping ‘Paganini’ movement, if not excitingly precipitous, still makes an impact by virtue of Nielsen’s strong projection of the syncopations. Like Claudio Arrau, Nielsen draws out and deliberates over ‘Aveu’. She’s clearly warmed for the ‘Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins’, and imbues the reprised ‘Préambule’ passages with a sense of dynamism and fantasy that largely eludes this Carnaval. Nelson Freire’s lively, imaginative Carnaval (Decca, 1/04) and the fleet refinement of Ivan Moravec’s Beethoven Variations (Supraphon, 2/02) remain the versions of reference.