Arne Skjold Rasmussen pianist Danacord DACOCD 966-7

The Forgotten Danish Pianist Arne Skjold Rasmussen
The Complete Solo Tono recordings
rec. 1951-56, venue unknown
Danacord DACOCD 966-7 [2 CD: 156]

Danacord has a knack for disc names. It has a multi-volume series devoted to Victor Schiøler, whom it calls ‘The Great Danish Pianist’ and now here is a much more compact tribute to ‘The Forgotten Danish Pianist’, Arne Skjold Rasmussen (1921-1980), a Nielsen specialist overwhelmed by concert and recording nerves.

Jonas Barlyng’s notes offer a full, free and frank analysis of Rasmussen’s life and career and helpfully cite the experiences of others, such as Frede Schandorf Petersen and Rasmussen’s students, Tom Ernst and Mogens Dalsgaard, that together help to draw the strands of his music-making and teaching together. Rasmussen had studied with the leading Nielsen interpreter of the time, Christian Christiansen, attended Edwin Fischer’s masterclasses in Lucerne (1947-51) and taught from 1954 at the Royal Danish Academy of Music – by which time he had already made his first recordings for Tono.

These recordings are preserved in this twofer which charts the years 1951-56. Let’s hope that his FONA/Turnabout Complete Nielsen piano recordings of 1965 will emerge in due course, as they’re his best-known testament. The first disc contains three Beethoven sonatas. The notes produce tables of timings detailing competing contemporary versions of the Appassionata – everyone from Arrau to Solomon (a dozen all told – including two Schiøler performances) – which include all three movement timings. I have never understood why people present these tables. If you can’t make the point in your text – the point being made here is that Rasmussen is very speedy – then no table will help you unless the tempi are in some way bizarre. In fact, Rasmussen’s tempi are similar to those of Orazio Frugoni, and not that much faster than Casadesus and Yves Nat and the performer he most reminds me of is William Murdoch who, back in 1927, was similarly fast and intense. Rasmussen has sufficient phrasal plasticity not to sound inflexible, but he is decidedly blunt and without much sentiment. The trenchant drive he generates is admirable, though those used to the plush slow movements cultivated by Arrau and Solomon may well find this no-nonsense directness not to their liking. In a phrase, Rasmussen exudes dynamism without rigidity.

The Waldstein – no table of timings here, thankfully – was recorded two years later in 1953 and is similarly kinetic, but here there are a few fudged passages and one or two dropped notes. He was self-deprecating about his technique – though he has no real trouble in the Appassionata – so this could be a case of habitual nerves. The central movement has a sense of reserved gravity whilst the finale is fiery but controlled, an approach that resemble that of Backhaus in timings though not necessarily in terms of tonal quality. The final sonata is No 9 in E-flat, Op 14/1, made for LP in 1956. Clarity, directness and a certain expressive coolness mark out its contours.

Of his Chopin, a Tono coupling made in 1954, the notes are honest and it’s true that the Nocturne is something of a disappointment whilst the Étude is very much better. His Brahms can equally be sampled though like his Chopin there really isn’t enough of it on which to form any serious thoughts other than to note that the late pieces offer robustness and poetry; the Intermezzo in A major, Op 118/2, in particular, is sensitively voiced.

The second CD leads with his Nielsen recordings of 1952-53, made on six Tono 78s. There’s another table that contrasts Rasmussen’s recordings of the Suite, made in 1953 and 1965, with those of a competing Nielsen exponent, Herman D Koppel, who recorded the Suite in 1952 and 1981. I’ve reviewed many Koppel recordings here – either his compositions, or his piano recordings (or both) – and he remains an important figure in the Nielsen discography, as in other discographies, so I won’t be adjudicating between them. Rasmussen, though, had real authority in this repertoire and is a lithe and engaging exponent of the multifarious qualities of the Suite. Sample his dappled precision in the second movement or the genuinely ‘patetico’ quality he finds in the third panel, the pastoral purity of his fourth or the exceptionally exciting vitality of the sixth and last. There’s a fine 1952 traversal of the Theme and Variations, Op 40 in which antique nobility is met by fleetly scampering pianism to create a sequence of genuinely contrasting elements. If you’ve previously passed by the seemingly innocuous Three Piano Pieces, Op 59, you might like to be detained by Rasmussen as he brings out their striking effects and in particular the gaunt unyielding nature of the central slow movement and the increasingly triumphal nature of the finale.

There is a rather conventional sequence to end, possibly a contractual obligation, or the kind of more commonplace charmers expected of pianists. One doesn’t sense too much commitment from Rasmussen, but he is joined by his wife Inger for Schubert’s Marche Militaire, for piano four-hands – it’s sprightly and good – and for the Impromptu in A-flat major. If his Schumann and Mendelssohn lack a sense of fantasy, and his Grieg is – as the notes suggest – rather undernourished, maybe that just signposts where his real affiliations lay. The Rustle of Spring, with which this twofer ends, offers bejewelled filigree opportunities that Rasmussen was not inclined to accept. Such frivolity, one senses, was not for him.

With a single exception (the recording with his wife) the transfers were made by Claus Byrith from LPs and not from the 78s. They sound fine. Kudos, too, to Barlyng whose notes, as I said, add materially to the success of the album and on which I have relied – and I’m sure he’ll take my obsessive dislike of table timings with a pinch of well-deserved salt.

Jonathan Woolf

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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata No 23 in F minor, Op 57 ‘Appassionata’
Piano Sonata No 21 in C major, Op 53 ‘Waldstein’
Piano Sonata No 9 in E major, Op 14 No 1
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Nocturne in E-flat major, Op 9 No 2
Étude in E major, Op 10 No 3
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Capriccio in G minor, Op 116 No 3
Intermezzo in E major, Op 116 No 4
Intermezzo in A major, Op 188 No 2
Rhapsody in E-flat major, Op 119 No 4
rec. 1951-56

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)

Suite for Piano, Op 45
Theme and Variations, Op 40
Three Piano Pieces, Op 59
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Marche Militaire No 1 in D major: Piano 4-hands with Inger Skjold Rasmussen
Impromptu in A-flat major, Op 142 No 3
Moment Musical in A-flat major, Op 94 No 2
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Romance in F-sharp major, Op 28 No 2
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Spring Song in A major, Op 62 No 6
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, Op 65 No 6
Christian Sinding (1856-1941)
Rustle of Spring, Op 32 No 3
rec. 1952-54