John Damgaard (piano)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No 31 in A-flat major, Op 110 (1821) [19:10]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-49)
Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor, Op 58 (1844) [28:12]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op 24 (1861) [29:09]
rec. 1979, Concert Hall, The Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus, Denmark (Beethoven and Brahms); The Concert Hall of The Danish Radio, Copenhagen, Denmark (Chopin)
DANACORD DACOCD910 [76:59]
Despite this CD being a kind of 80th birthday gift for the Danish pianist, John Damgaard (b. 1941), all three works were recorded in 1979. This will not seem long ago to some individuals (including me), but my arithmetic tells me it that was 43 years ago when Damgaard was a mere 38 years old. That said, the entire disc is outstanding. It features “immaculate performances of three composers close to his heart.” Damgaard’s CV can be found on his webpage; nevertheless, a few notes may be of interest. The pianist studied at the Eastman School of Music in New York and the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen, then later with Ilona Kabos in London and Wilhelm Kempff in Italy. He held professorships at various musical institutions, his last significant appointment being at The Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus. Concertising world-wide, his repertoire tends towards classical and Romantic programmes; however, he is also a champion of Danish piano music. He has made more than 25 records and CDs - and remarkably, he is still performing.
The album opens with a magnificent recital of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata
No 31 in A-flat major, Op 110, completed in 1821. This is mostly a sunny work which opens in an amiable and songful mood. The Scherzo is witty and humorous. The final movement begins with a short recitative leading into a heart-breaking Arioso dolente. The subsequent fugue may not be Bach-like, but it is interesting. Schnabel once stated that Beethoven’s fugues do not make a point of being beautiful.” Maybe they are not beautiful, but they are certainly impressive. Part way through, it is interrupted by a reprise of the Arioso. To my mind this is a master stroke. I am not a Beethoven enthusiast, but I found the playing thoroughly captivating and satisfying.
Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor, Op 58 (1844) is strikingly beautiful. This was the final sonata that he composed and dedicated to Countess Émilie de Perthuis. The English critic Arthur Hedley has suggested that “its four movements contain some of the finest music ever written for the piano.” It is undoubtedly a complex piece to play and interpret. I usually look in a performance of this Sonata at how the second subject of the opening Allegro maestoso hits me. This theme is as perfect as any from Chopin’s most successful Nocturnes and should bring a tear to the eye. Damgaard certainly passes this test for me. That said, the short, quicksilver Scherzo, the bel canto slow movement and the slowly unfolding rondo are equally magical in their impact.
There is no doubt that Johannes Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel,
Op 24 (1861) is a supreme example of variations in the piano literature. It has been described as one of the “mountain peaks” of the repertoire. The form is straightforward: after the theme, derived from Handel’s Leçon in B-flat, twenty-five superbly developed variations are presented. These include a vast sequence of rhythmic, melodic, colouristic and character transformations. There is a well-judged balance here between the dramatic and lyrical. It concludes with a powerful and fascinating fugue which combines all known contrapuntal structures and classical development patterns, leading to a magnificent climax.
Notwithstanding the advertising blurb for this CD stating that the release “includes Damgaard’s informative booklet notes” this is not really the case. In fact, there is virtually no discussion about the Beethoven or the Chopin. True, there is a paragraph headed “Why 25 Variations” for the Brahms which bears reading. There are also the pianist’s thoughts about “Why do many musicians continue playing far beyond when other people think they should quit?” And then there is a short, but helpful bio of the pianist derived from his website. Dates are not given for the Chopin and Brahms. I understand that this album is a tribute to the pianist, yet I do feel that a somewhat more imaginative cover photograph of him could have been provided.
I cannot fault the playing in any of these pianistic masterpieces. The sound recording and production are splendidly managed by Danacord’s Claus Byrith.