Thursday 18 July 2019

So who was Jean Louis Nicodé: piano music of beguiling charm from Simon Callaghan on Hyperion

Ein Liebesleben - Jean Louis Nicodé
Jean Louis Nicodé Ein Liebesleben & other piano works; Simon Callaghan; Hyperion Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 July 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★)
With a beguiling charm these piano pieces evoke earlier styles

Until I came across this enterprising disc from pianist Simon Callaghan on Hyperion, I had never heard of Jean Louis Nicodé. His limited claim to fame seems to be his arranging of the first movement of Chopin's abandoned third piano concerto. This disc, Ein Liebesleben, seems to be the first ever devoted to Nicodé's solo piano music and Callaghan gives us three substantial works, Andenken an Robert Schumann - Sechs Phantasiestücke Op.6, Variationene un Fuge über ein Originalthema Op. 18 and Ein Liebesleben - Zehn Poësien Op.22.

If you put the disc on cold, you might think that you have got the wrong composer as Andenken an Robert Schumann (dedicated 'most respectfully to Frau Dr. Clara Schumann') is 30 minutes of music evoking that of Robert Schumann.

So who was Jean Louis Nicodé.

Jean Louis Nicodé in 1906
Jean Louis Nicodé in 1906
Despite his name he was Prussian, born in 1853 new Posen, now Poznan in Poland but then in the Kingdom of Prussia. His father was wealthy, and an amateur violinist who on losing his fortune made a living as a musician in Berlin. From the age of eight Jean Louis studied violin with his father, going on to learn the piano and then to study at the Neue Akademie der Tonkunst in Berlin. He eventually moved to Dresden, married the daughter of the English Consul, became conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra and founded his own concert series. Championing new music, he gave premieres of works by Richard Strauss and Bruckner's Symphony No. 8. Yet his own music is relatively conservative. He wrote a number of mammoth orchestra works, but this disc is concerned with his smaller scale writing for solo piano.

Ein Liebesleben is a cycle of ten musical poems, each with a Schumannesque title, 'First meeting', 'Song of longing', 'Restless love'. Whilst never approaching pastiche, Jean Louis Nicodé 's music is full of references, Anton Rubinstein, Schumann, Schubert and Liszt, and it was to Liszt that I kept returning perhaps because that composer's transcriptions merged his own personality with another composer's.

The other work on the disc is the variations and fugue on an original theme, the theme is a haunting, elegiac one and the variations are very effective ending with a substantial and somewhat surprising fugue.

Jean Louis Nicodé's music is delightful, completely unconcerned over its stylistic plurality and highly effectively written for the piano. The movements of Ein Liebesleben, largely short, flow effortlessly as do the variations and Callaghan plays them all with some style.

The Cd booklet gives some valuable background to the composer and his works, but I failed to discover the composition dates of the various pieces.

This disc is a valuable complement to Hyperion's The Romantic Piano Concerto series, and two of Jean Louis Nicodé's teachers appear in the series, Theodor Kullak and Friedrich Kiel. Like some of these concertos, this disc reveals that music of late 19th century Germany was not all Wagner and Brahms, there is a charm and lightness here which beguiles even as you are aware deep down that the music might lack earnest substance.

Jean Louis Nicodé (1853-1919) - Andenken an Robert Schumann [32.37]
Jean Louis Nicodé - Variationen und Fuge uber ein Originalthema [22.30]
Jean Louis Nicodé - Ein Liebesleben [26.21]
Simon Callaghan (piano)
Recorded Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 15-17 June 2018
Available from Amazon.

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