In finstrer Mitternacht - Mortensen

In finstrer Mitternacht - Mortensen

Lawo Classics  LWC1084

Stereo Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental

Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 3; 2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Ballade, Op. 10 No. 1

Nils Anders Mortensen, piano

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Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - November 30, 2015

Pianist Nils Anders Mortensen is well-known and much appreciated for his solo appearances with the principal Norwegian orchestras. He has a made a number of solo recordings, including a Debussy disc which was highly praised, and four as accompanist in partnership with mezzo Marianne Beate Kielland for Lawo Classics, including Grieg songs (Grieg: Haugtussa, Vinjesangene, Ibsenangene - Kielland, Mortensen) and songs by Catherinus Elling (Elling: Song cycles - Kielland, Mortensen). These show him to be a fine and versatile accompanist as well as a soloist, and, here with Brahms, a satisfying exponent of pianistic Romanticism.

His nicely planned recital begins with Brahms' Two Rhapsodies Op. 79, mature pieces from 1879 just after his Violin Concerto, and the first piano pieces since he wrote his Third Piano Sonata in 1854. Why this handful of tempestuous Romanticism, followed again with a gap in works for the piano until his exquisite late pianistic minatures in the 1890s? The answer seems to be that he had fallen dangeously in love with a highly talented pupil, Elisabet von Herzogenberg, who had a husband. As before (with the Schumanns), frightened by his feelings for women, he made friends with the husband and formed an active social trio. Elisabet was one of the greatest of his Muses, and he dedicated these Two Rhapsodies to her. Both of the pieces are intense in gesture, the B minor having advanced and restless harmonies, while the sonata-form G minor is more compact, surging, gasping and fiery. Mortensen's playing seems to be well aware of Brahms' passionate emotions during this compositional episode and produced a well-polished interpretation.

At the age of 19, Brahms began his trilogy of piano sonatas with Opus 1, already setting down his concepts and materials for developing the classical sonatas of Beethoven into a new Romantic form. Having gained much praise from the Schumanns for his Opus 1 in C major (1852-53), he continued with Opus 2 in F sharp minor (1852) and finally in Opus 3 in F minor. This last sonata declared his triumphal success, the advanced sonata form. Statistically, the F minor is one of the most successful piano sonatas of its century, and of the three sonatas it is by far the most popular today. Indeed, at the time of writing, there are two pianists in ongoing complete sets of Brahms' piano music who have recently issued their F minor interpretations. Jonathan Plowright for BIS in SACD (Brahms: Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol 2 - Plowright) and Barry Douglas for Chandos in redbook CD have interpretations which differ from each other and from the classical masters like Richter, Radu Lupu, and Julius Katchen to name but a few.

Mortensen's approach to the 5 movement sonata is markedly faster than Plowright and Douglas in most movements; he takes the heroics of the primary leaping motive from the beginning of the first movement with plenty of energy, pushing forward yet relaxing more with the more lyrical material. Throughout the work he is sensitive to Brahms' rich and symphonic keyboard writing, indeed bringing it into the orchestral realm with imitations of tympani rolls and suggestions of brasses in the funereal Rückblik movement.
Curiously, Mortensen's timing for the first movement is 7:54, while Plowright takes 10:37 and Douglas 10:45. The major discrepancy is because Mortensen, although playing all the other repeat sections in the work, oddly does not do so with the first movement's exposition, according to the score I was using.

Amongst the several thematic layers of the F minor sonata is poetry. Brahms inscribed a short poem by Otto Sternow (pseudonym A. Inkermann) on the score before the Andante espressivo second movement, which has a nocturnal quality capturing the tender motions of the two lovers in the poem, the piano providing an instrumental commentary of their love affair. The line "I stand in the darkest midnight" in German provides Lawo Classic's subtitle for this disc. It is very good to have the full poem in Norwegian and English in the booklet of the disc's digipak; not all issues do that.

The same is true for the last work on the disc, the Ballade Op.10 Nr. 1 (1854). Brahms' inspiration was a Scottish "Eduard", a bloody tragedy. Its drama, the probing questions and evasive responses and even the dripping of blood from a knife of the original poem are vividly reproduced pianistically by Mortensen. The listener can follow the story in Norwegian or English, enhancing its effect.

This recital was captured in the modern Jar Church, a well-known Norwegian venue with a helpful ambience. However, my ears reported a rather close microphone array, so that very little bloom was added to develop the piano tone, even in the 5.0 multichannel setup. Particularly at the high-volume, strenuous passages in the Sonata I was aware of taught strings being hit with hammers, brittle sound instead of a mature Steinway piano sound. In comparison, the Plowright and Douglas discs had a quotient of ambience which gave the piano a much less percussive and relaxed sound, seemingly being in an audience rather than in the player's position right next to the instrument. Some listeners, however, like such dry or close recording.

Apparently this music had never been recorded by a Norwegian pianist before this disc was made. Mortensen demonstrates a high regard for Brahms, especially in bringing out the Lisztian influence of the composer (Brahms had heard Liszt's ground-breaking Sonata just before writing the F minor sonata). I look forward to hearing more from him playing Brahms, hopefully in a recording with more bloom.

Copyright © 2015 John Miller and



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