About this Recording
GP662 - NIEMANN, W.R.: Piano Music - Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / 3 Compositions for Piano / Fantasie-Mazurka (Bing Bing Li)
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Walter Niemann (1876–1953)
Sonata No. 1 ‘Romantic’, Op. 60 • Three Compositions for Piano, Op. 7 • Sonata No. 2 ‘Nordic’, Op. 75 • Fantasie-Mazurka, Op. 53

 

Walter Niemann was born in Hamburg on 10 October 1876 into a notable musical family. His father was the composer and pianist Rudolph Niemann while his uncle, Gustav Adolph Niemann, was a renowned violinist and an important musical influence in Finland. Niemann studied under Engelbert Humperdinck and was also a pupil of Carl Reinecke at the Leipzig Conservatory, earning a Doctorate (on early ligatures and mensural music) in 1901. Niemann first worked as a teacher in Hamburg and served as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in Leipzig through 1904–06. Between 1907 and 1917 he was critic for the Neueste Nachrichten in Leipzig, though he was later to give up both of these positions in order to devote himself to composition. He also taught on the faculty of the Hamburg Conservatory. In 1927, Hermann Abert described him as “the most important composer for the piano today, who understands how to make music which is fine and colourful, even though he often strays into the salon”.

As well as a gifted pianist and composer Walter Niemann was a respected intellectual and author of numerous scholarly and literary works—the most renowned of which was Brahms, published in 1920 then translated into many languages. Meister des Klaviers: Die Pianisten der Gegenwart und der letzen Vergangenheit (Master of the Piano: Past and Present) was published in 1919 and was long considered a classic. He also wrote popular biographies of composers; that of Brahms emphasized the composer’s North German roots at the expense of his later Viennese years. As a reviewer he was often outspoken in his criticism of ‘pathological’ and ‘sensuous’ composers such as Richard Strauss, Mahler and Schoenberg, and was threatened in 1910 with a libel suit by Reger. Conversely, he praised nationalists and folk-influenced composers such as Pfitzner, Sibelius and MacDowell, and was influential in the popularizing of Scandinavian composers in Germany. Following the Second World War, Niemann’s idiom fell out of favour: he died largely neglected in Leipzig on 17 June 1953.

Although he wrote a number of chamber works and a handful of orchestral pieces, Niemann was best known as a prolific composer of piano music. Of 189 opus numbers more than 150 are works for solo piano: music which evinces an underlying sense of passion, and which is mainly Romantic and reflective in character. He was also one of the few German composers of his generation to explore the qualities of Impressionism, often evoking a mood of colour and the exotic. Many of these works reflect his interests in travel and the past such as Aus Watteaus Zeit (From Watteau’s Time), Sanssouci and Meißner Porzellan (Meissen Porcelain); together with poetic subjects such as Alt-China (Old China), Der Orchideengarten (The Orchid Garden) and Der exotische Pavillon (The Exotic Pavilion)—often expressed with great delicacy. There are also several full-scale piano sonatas, the first and second of which are to be heard on this recording.

The First Sonata (1919) is subtitled ‘Romantic’, which admirably describes its character. The first movement opens with a pensive theme whose underlying agitation soon comes to the surface in some impassioned piano writing. This subsides into the second theme whose wistful expressiveness provides an ideal complement, for all that the writing here is no less intricately conceived. A brief transition leads into a development section which draws upon elements from both themes while the previous agitation simmers beneath, thus providing a seamless transition into the modified reprise which accords the expressive theme greater emphasis. This more tranquil mood continues into the coda which concludes in the home key.

The second movement commences with a halting, bittersweet melody that hints at greater reserves as it unfolds before being rounded off by a codetta of gentle poise. The right-hand figuration then continues as the second theme is introduced. This is more plaintive than its predecessor, and builds gradually yet inexorably to the harmonically wide-ranging climax. From here the music subsides into a calm recollection of the initial melody, the right-hand figuration ascending to the very top of the keyboard prior to the solemn concluding chords.

The finale begins with a surging theme in which melody and accompaniment are fused as a tensile continuum, though this soon finds contrast in the suave second theme that unfolds at length. The initial theme returns as the basis of a restless development that builds to a powerful culmination, at the height of which it is resumed as part of the modified reprise. The second theme now returns, continuing into a coda that rounds off the work in an affirmative fashion.

The Three Compositions (1909) is a relatively early instance of Niemann’s writing for piano. The opening Intrada evinces a calm though purposeful poise as it unfolds towards a more animated central section, with elements of both ideas continuing through to a decisive close. The central Erinnerung (Reminiscence) has a limpid elegance which persists as the music unfolds in a seamless flow, with just a hint of agitation to ruffle its serenity prior to the close. The final Arabeske unfolds over a lilting, barcarolle-like accompaniment—its main theme yielding up subsidiary motifs before the music finally alights on a note of gentle insistence.

The Second Sonata (1921), ‘Nordic’, is a testament to Niemann’s Scandinavian sympathies. The first movement opens with a hymn-like theme which soon takes on greater animation as its accompanying figuration becomes more energetic. This latter is maintained into a second theme, whose amiable nature leads into a development that draws on aspects of both themes as it arrives at a climax of considerable rhetoric and virtuosity. At its height the second theme returns in suitably intensified terms, before a brief coda sees the music to an emphatic close.

The second movement is the emotional heart of the work in all respects. It begins almost as a funeral march whose chords move heavily and with effort, to which the second theme brings a level of consolation with its exquisite harmonic profile and subtly varied rhythmic motion. The funereal theme duly returns to effect a climax which brings the most plangent writing of the whole work, after which the second theme is resumed and the music slowly winds down to a resting-point whose manner is inevitably informed by the fatefulness of the main theme.

The finale commences in a mood of some anxiety, the headlong main theme and its intricate accompaniment soon finding contrast with the warmer and more consoling melody that takes its place. The initial theme is not to be denied, and resumes its restless progress as the music rapidly accrues expressive tension. The brief though eventful development is centred on the first theme, which in turn leaves its successor free to occupy most of the reprise as the mood becomes gradually more positive. Thematic elements heard earlier during the work are to be perceived at the outset of a coda that sees the whole piece through to its heartfelt conclusion.

Along with his piano sonatas and numerous sets of character pieces, Niemann also left a large number of individual items as range from such introspective works as the nocturne Singende Föntane (The Singing Fountain), Op. 30 and the barcarolle Sommernach am Flusse (A Summer’s Night By The River), Op. 45, via those which underline his adherence to the Germanic tradition such as Chaconne, to extrovert numbers such as Fantasie-Mazurka (1918) that makes considerable pianistic demands and duly rounds off the present selection. An encore item of no mean style, the piece moves from its opening rhetorical flourish into a main theme whose tripping mazurka rhythm holds good through some nimble harmonic side-steps, then on to a conclusion whose enticing cadences are cut short by the peremptory close.


Richard Whitehouse


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