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Jens Elvekjaer at Dumbarton Oaks

Jens Elvekjaer, pianist
Jens Elvekjaer, pianist
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Jens Elvekjaer gave his American recital debut this weekend on the Friends of Music series at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington audiences have heard this Danish pianist before, in his appearance with Trio con Brio Copenhagen this past February at the Clarice Smith Center (the group will be back again on February 18, at the Library of Congress, with violist James Dunham). For his first exposure as a soloist, Elvekjaer played a challenging and alluring program extremely well, if there were not quite enough superlative moments to add up to a complete rave.

The concert opened with Danish music, Carl Nielsen's Tema med variationer, a set of fifteen more or less continuous variations on a gentle neo-Baroque theme with unexpected harmonic shifts, composed in 1916-17. Elvekjaer is something of a Nielsen specialist, as his only recording, to my knowledge [See correction below--Ed.], is the first volume of a complete Nielsen chamber music set from Dacapo (the second volume will be released later this month). He will hopefully record the variations, which he played from the score, turning his own pages (which required him to drop a few notes in the demanding fifteenth variation). The variations were alternately devilish (no. 6), playful (no. 5), and gentle (the interweaving lines of no. 10), evoking flavors redolent of Schumann (the crossing hands of no. 1), Chopin (the mournful inner voices of the mazurka-like no. 8), and Debussy (the cascading tolling of bells in no. 15, reminiscent of La cathédrale engloutie). Elvekjaer gave a range of finishes to the different genres referenced, a gloomy funeral lament for the homophonic no. 7, flashing sparkle for the toccata of no. 11, soft pedal and whirring tremolos in the music box-like no. 12, and obsessive harping on the ostinato half-step in the top voice of no. 13.

Pianist Jens Elvekjaer playing Nielsen in the Music Room, January 12, 2009
(photo courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks)

The rest of the first half was devoted to one of the autumnal last three piano sonatas of Schubert (C minor, D. 958 -- see online score). Played from memory, the piece again showcased the range of Elvekjaer's touch, which impressed especially by its strength in the weighty passages. Some of the lighter moments, like the second theme of the first movement, could have been a little more feathery, although that may have been partly due to the Dumbarton Steinway, which is a little crunchy. The often bleak mood fit well with the numerous references to Schubert's own Winterreise song cycle. It was gutsy to conclude this recital with Musorgsky's daunting Pictures at an Exhibition, and Elvekjaer played it with considerable technical polish, a few clunky moments in Baba-Yaga aside (hey, even William Kapell didn't get all the notes). Here Elvekjaer's work at the forte end of the spectrum maxed out the instrument a bit, as in the Bydlo movement, but the lighter movements were fluffy and fun, like the gently teasing children of Tuileries and the pointy, scratching Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.

Available from Amazon
Nielsen Chamber Music, Vol. 1, J. Elvekjaer et al.
An accidentally dropped cane marred the opening of the Schubert, something that promised to spoil the recording of this concert, made for broadcast on NPR and WETA's Front Row Washington, for the first time at Dumbarton Oaks. Happily, when Elvekjaer appeared for his second encore (the first, hitting exactly the right tone, was Schubert's G-flat major impromptu), he informed us that he was going to play the opening of the sonata again, to patch into the broadcast. That fixed the cane noise, but not the obtrusive snoring toward the end of the third movement. We'll have to see if that can be heard on the radio.

The next concerts on the Friends of Music series at Dumbarton Oaks will feature Concertino Palatino with Dutch soprano Johannette Zomer, in 17th-century music by Heinrich Schütz, Samuel Scheidt, Johann Rosenmüller, and Daniel Speer (February 8 and 9).

Jens Elvekjaer's manager informs me of the following: "Mr. Elvekjaer does indeed have another recording out: his début CD of Ravel, Franck and Debussy, which was nominated for two Danish Music Awards." Thanks for the information!

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