About this Recording
GP717 - Piano Recital: Petersson, Carl - NØRGÅRD, P. / LYKKEBO, F. / BISGAARD, L.A. (Contemporary Danish Piano Music)
English  Danish 

Contemporary Danish Piano Music
Per Nørgård (b.1932) • Finn Lykkebo (1937–1984) • Lars Aksel Bisgaard (b.1947)


This recording contains rarely played and previously unrecorded piano music from the period 1949–2014 by three Danish composers: Per Nørgård (b. 13 July 1932), Finn Lykkebo (1937–1984) and Lars Aksel Bisgaard (b. 6 November 1947).

Per Nørgård has long been regarded as the most important Danish composer in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. He has accumulated an impressive oeuvre in almost every genre, and is the recipient of numerous prizes. From his early youth until the present he has composed a large number of pieces for solo piano, most of which have already been recorded on CD.

There are, however, a number of very early piano works by Nørgård from the period 1949–54 that have previously never been performed, or played just occasionally. This recording contains the two earliest known piano works by Nørgård: a sonata in three movements and a large-scale toccata, both dating from 1949 and never performed before. These pieces were probably shown to the composer Vagn Holmboe (1909–96) in connection with the then 17-year-old Nørgård’s request for private tuition. Holmboe agreed to this request, astonished to see such a great and already well developed creative talent. From 1952 until 1956 Nørgård continued his composition studies with Holmboe as a pupil at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, where he himself later became a composition teacher.

The early sonata consists of three short movements. Overall the style is neoclassical with hints of Stravinsky and Prokofiev ‘light’. The character is playful and quasi-improvisatory, with a skilfully judged balance between seriousness, lightness and bravura. It is particularly interesting to note that in the development of the first movement we hear an ostinato bass figure, the movement patterns of which already anticipate the melodic infinity series, discovered a decade later and first used twenty years later, that became especially characteristic of Nørgård’s mature music. The lyrical second movement, labelled ‘pastorale’, is almost minimalistic in its simplicity, but with a refined harmonic twist. The movement is constructed isorhythmically throughout, with a periodical structure of 3 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 2 = 12 crotchets. The third movement, played attacca, is a bravura finale with a decidedly virtuosic character. The frequent appearance of the ‘festive’ main theme (in the slightly ironic sense typical of Nørgård) binds the otherwise rather sprawling, episodic movement together, and ends the sonata in a festive manner.

The Toccata is—to an even greater extent than the Sonata—a large-scale bravura work, and places significant demands upon the pianist both technically and musically. Superficially the piece is more ‘dashing’ than the Sonata, and it is constructed even more in an episodic, mosaic-like manner, with an abundance of the most varied thoughts and ideas that clearly allow the young Nørgård’s compositional skill and spontaneous creative joy to shine through everywhere.

As in the Sonata, the frequent appearances of the characteristic main theme—played in octaves in the right hand—bind the Toccata together, giving the theme a certain rondo-ritornello feeling. The work’s overarching form is in three parts: toccata—fugue—toccata, a testament to Nørgård’s early familiarity with the contributions to this genre by Buxtehude and the young J.S. Bach. The four-part fugue in C minor, forty bars in length, is particularly ambitious, and contains many of the stylistic effects of the baroque fugue such as the obligatory counterpoint and stretto. Harmonically the fugue is characterised by an uncompromising linearity, which on several occasions leads to powerfully dissonant clashes—which nonetheless seem logical from the perspective of voice-leading and part-writing. Occasionally, however, there are technical errors that show that even if the 17-yearold Per Nørgård had already mastered classical counterpoint to an unusually high standard, he still had much to learn from Finn Høffding (1899–1997), who became his music theory teacher at the conservatory. Very early in the last section of the Toccata, a characteristic rhythmic-melodic figure is heard in the descant, another anticipation of the infinity series: it is simply the first eight notes in the two-tone version of this row (D – C sharp – C sharp – D, C sharp – D – D – C sharp)! The end of the Toccata almost falls over itself in extremely fast demisemiquaver figures that threaten to go beyond what is pianistically possible—but here, as everywhere on this recording, Carl Petersson shows his masterful technique, allowing the musical figures to remain very clear despite the fast tempo.

The first of Nørgård’s piano works that the composer himself acknowledges, however, is his Sonata in One Movement, Op. 6, which dates from his student years at the conservatory. It was composed in 1953, revised in 1956-57, and is dedicated to his fellow-student, the pianist John Winther, who gave its first performance (original version) on 17 September 1954. We do not know when the revised version was first performed. Previously it has been possible to become acquainted with this sonata only by means of an LP recording from 1970 by the pianist Elisabeth Klein. This is its first appearance on CD, and in digital form, and thus a significant missing piece is added to our overall picture of Nørgård’s piano music from the period after approx. 1955.

Compared with the three-movement sonata from just four years earlier and a four-movement sonata from 1949–50, Nørgård has, in this his third piano sonata, already reached full mature mastery as a piano composer, both musically and technically. The sonata is a symphonically proportioned, expansive, densely contrapuntal and especially virtuosic work, which is nonetheless also characterised by strong, almost extreme motivic concentration. There are three recurring motifs which—using traditional sonata-form terminology with a little latitude—can be described as a motto, main theme and subsidiary theme. These motifs or themes are subjected to numerous transformations and combinations, showing Nørgård’s rapid assimilation of Vagn Holmboe’s technique of metamorphosis, which has its roots as far back as Schubert, Liszt and Brahms.

Otherwise, classical sonata-form principles are not much in evidence, even if we can observe what seems to be a recapitulation and (at the beginning) the contours of a first and second group. In addition we can discern the outline of four continuous movements (the fourth of which corresponds to the recapitulation), which immediately makes the work resemble both a sonata form and a sonata cycle, akin to a Romantic symphonic poem. Moreover the slow coda and quiet conclusion claim a distant kinship between Nørgård’s piece and Franz Liszt’s famous Piano Sonata in B minor from 1853, which belongs formally to this same genre. Nørgård’s sonata is in C, with a prominent tonal contrast in F sharp. In addition, the fact that the sonata is in a single movement leads our thoughts towards another of Nørgård’s great role models, Jean Sibelius, and his Seventh Symphony. The sonata is thus a fully valid expression of the artistic perspective of the young Nørgård, which he referred to as ‘the universe of the Nordic mind’. On Elisabeth Klein’s LP recording, Nørgård himself characterised the sonata as follows: ‘The Sonata is wholeheartedly attached to the Northern symphonic tradition—influenced as it is by Sibelius and Holmboe, dark sounding, far spinning, but with a monomaniac thematic unity.’

Finn Lykkebo began his musical education in earnest at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in 1960—initially as a church musician, and from 1963 onwards also with music theory and music history as principal subjects. He also studied composition under Per Nørgård, and at the same time Lykkebo composed choral settings, piano music and songs, primarily in smaller, more modest forms. Lykkebo always stood slightly on the periphery of the circle of young composers at the Academy, which centred around Per Nørgård. In 1965, when Nørgård left the Royal Danish Academy of Music to take up a similar teaching post at the Academy of Music in Aarhus, his pupils followed him there—with the exception of Finn Lykkebo, who henceforth stood on his own two feet as a composer, and basically regarded himself as self-taught in this capacity. After his diploma exam in 1966, Lykkebo worked as a lecturer in music theory at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Esbjerg (formerly the Vestjysk Musikkonservatorium) until 1981. Works from this period include Tableaux pour piano, composed in 1969 and revised in 1978. Tableaux is Lykkebo’s only published piano composition (it is published by Samfundet til udgivelse af dansk Musik).

Lykkebo was first and foremost a lyricist who conveyed intense sensory impressions of nature through his music. Lykkebo’s style shows no trace of Per Nørgård’s individual style, although overall the younger composer’s music is very clearly embedded in the Nordic mentality. On the other hand the orientation of the time towards serialism, which spread from central and western Europe in the years after World War II, did have a certain influence on his development. This influence was not long-lasting, however, and Lykkebo found new avenues. Nonetheless, serialism had taught him precision, economy and concentration—qualities that to a large extent characterise the five short pieces in the Tableaux. The musical language is consistently atonal, and more or less complete twelve-tone rows can sometimes be discerned in the movements, which are also marked by an unusual degree of rhythmic complexity. Despite their expressive concentration, however, the pieces have a hint of poetic sensitivity, accentuated by the descriptive titles which, despite all the modernity, establish a distant relationship with the character pieces of Schumann and Ravel.

A decisive factor in Lars Aksel Bisgaard’s choice of career was that in the winter of 1965–66 when, as a schoolboy, he participated in Finn Lykkebo’s knowledgeable and inspiring lessons in musical appreciation at evening classes. Lykkebo was very helpful in providing Bisgaard with information about what was necessary to gain admission to the conservatory’s music theory and music history classes. After passing his school-leaving exams, Bisgaard acquired the necessary knowledge first by studying musicology at the University of Copenhagen (1966–69) and then by following in Lykkebo’s footsteps as a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Music with music theory and music history as his main subjects (1969–75). Immediately after that, he commenced studies of composition under Per Nørgård at the Academy of Music in Aarhus (1975–81). In 1981 Lars Bisgaard succeeded Finn Lykkebo as a lecturer in music theory at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Esbjerg. He worked there until 1993, and then taught at the Royal Danish Academy of Music until his retirement in 2013.

Meeting Per Nørgård in the late summer of 1972 was another decisive moment for Lars Bisgaard, in many respects. Not only was he deeply fascinated by Nørgård’s creative universe, but also the creative impulse that had lain dormant within him since his childhood suddenly sprang to life. The first fruit of this was the piano piece Stadier, composed in 1973–74 and dedicated to the pianist Elisabeth Klein, who gave its first performance at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen on 13 April 1975 and subsequently played it on numerous occasions. While Bisgaard was studying music theory and music history, he had Elisabeth Klein as his piano teacher for two years. He then had the opportunity to play newly composed works, and two pieces in particular inspired him when choosing the style of Stadier: Arne Nordheim’s Listen (1971) and Poul Ruders’ Dante Sonata (1970). Also in the background of Stadier was Franz Liszt’s above-mentioned Piano Sonata in B minor.

Stadier is an attempt to unite widely divergent stylistic expressions in a single composition, without losing its overall feeling of unity. The work’s basic motif, which generates the majority of the musical material, consists of just four notes, for example A – B flat – D flat – C and its inversion (E flat – D – B – C). After a lengthy introduction where, for instance, the basic motif and its inversion are presented, there are three main sections, the character and order of which can be perceived as a musical pendant to the progression that takes place in Dante’s Divine Comedy: InfernoPurgatory Paradise.

The first stage is a veritable inferno of semiquavers and sharply dissonant chords in conflict with each other. This section places enormous technical demands upon the pianist, who has to cope with these figures at an extremely fast tempo. At the beginning of this section Robert Schumann might perhaps have written the indication So schnell wie möglich (As fast as possible), and a little later Noch schneller (Even faster), as he did in one of his own piano sonatas—which was certainly meant ironically, as a dig at the prevalent but superficial virtuosity at the piano. In Stadier, however, there is no place for irony, although there are plenty of extreme challenges!

The second section points both forwards and backwards. It begins calmly and peacefully, but later the previous atmosphere becomes more and more intrusive until in the end it is completely dominant. This process can perhaps be regarded as a musical image of the phenomena that—according to the Bardo Thödol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead)—a person encounters after death in the so-called ‘bardo’ (‘transitional’) state. First the Peaceful Ones (deities) are confronted, then the Wrathful Ones; according to the Bardo Thödol, however, these are not just two sides of the same coin but also projections of the deceased’s own mind. In Catholic theology, Purgatory is the stage at which the deceased’s soul is cleansed of its sins, so it may be pure when it enters Paradise. Here the deceased meets figures from both heaven and hell, corresponding to the person’s good and bad sides.

In the end, though, light breaks through decisively, and the peace of Paradise descends upon the music, emphasized by traditional dominant seventh and dominant ninth chords. The ending of the piece, however, hints that the paradisiacal state of rest, achieved through struggle, may not be permanent, but might contain the germ of a new, similar cycle. Stadier can thus be said to imply an existential perspective on eternity.

Bisgaard started to compose Barcarole (1986–87), at a happy time in his life; the piece is dedicated to the singer Suzanne Nielsen as a birthday greeting. ‘Barcarole’ means ‘boating song’ (from the Italian barca, ‘boat’) and is a piece in peacefully flowing tempo, with the melody in the right hand; the left hand accompanies with triplet figures. Stylistically the piece is close to a Romantic barcarole, for example those of Mendelssohn (the four Venetianische Gondellieder in his Lieder ohne Worte) and—in monumental form—Chopin’s Barcarole, Op. 60 (1846).

Walking, with the subtitle Hommage à Thoreau, was written in 2014. The piece is based on some youth sketches from 1984, and is inspired by the American author Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) and his essay Walking from 1862. The simple main theme, which uses the available notes corresponding to the letters in Thoreau’s name (B [=H] – E – D – A), gradually ‘wander’ further and further away from the starting point, and in the end come back again—like any good walking tour. Walking is dedicated to Carl Petersson with great gratitude and respect for his formidable musicianship, which becomes apparent not least on this recording.

These three pieces comprise Lars Aksel Bisgaard’s complete piano music.

Lars Aksel Bisgaard
English translation by Andrew Barnett

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