“I first heard of Jean Louis Nicodé by reading a disparaging article about him by Eduard Hanslick. Assuming that any composer Hanslick disliked must be worthwhile, I probed further … [He] got it wrong; Nicodé was clearly worth a second look” (Don O'Connor, 2010). Technically Prussian, born near Posen (modern-day Polish Poznań), ancestrally a Hugeunot, hence his French name, Jean Louis Nicodé (1853-1919) was a notably well-connected pianist, organist, composer and conductor. Championing the New German school of Liszt and Wagner, he gave the German premiere of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony in Dresden in 1895 – as well as being responsible for the contentious rumour that Bruckner wanted his (wrong key) Te Deum to serve as a Finale for the unfinished Ninth – “though I wouldn’t swear to it”. A pick-up Dresden performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in 1899, calling for twenty-two rehearsals, was one of the highlights of his career. His pianist-wife, Fanny Kinnell, who died prematurely, was the daughter of a former British Consul-General.
Nicodé spoke a variety of Austro-German musical dialects from Schumann to Mahler and Zemlinsky via Wagner. His elder contemporary Felix Draeseke viewed him as “more conservative than radical ... a moderate progressive [rather] than a cacophonist.” He was a solid tonalist, a complex polyphonist and a master orchestrator, with a keen sense of the epic. The German Ocean inspired “symphony-ode” Das Meer, to a poem by Karl Woermann, written between 1884 and 1888, is in seven movements scored for large orchestra, organ, a tenor and a male chorus – one of late Romanticism's quintessentially “big machine” works (O'Connor's appellation). Who would not want to be a part of its closing A-major Herrlichkeit? Prefaced and interleaved with lines from another Woermann text, the C-minor Symphonic Variations, dedicated to Brahms (1884), in the form of a präludium, theme, twelve variations and finale, possess enough poetry and organically ascended peaks to reward programming. If not quite Rimsky, Tchaikovsky, Strauss or Respighi travelogues, the six Bilder aus dem Süden (1886) are clearly showpiece postcards, enticingly imagined and scored. The Faschingsbilder (1889) are also worth dipping into, while the imperialism of the Jubiläumsmarsch (1880) anticipates a curiously Elgarian end-of-era Edwardiana filtered through Bismarck men and muscle.
Nicodé orchestrated and extended Chopin's Allegro de concert in January 1880 – a persuasive attempt through which I, like many, first got to know his name. If it's rarely sampled these days – there's an occasionally cautious 1989 Chant du Monde recording with the Franco-Armenian pianist Setrak Yavruyan – his piano music is even less known, despite in its time having been published and reprinted by Breitkopf & Härtel, with Augener of London taking care of Britain and the Empire. An unrepresentative smattering of early-twentieth-century expression and non-expression piano rolls exist (Welte, Duo-Art, Metrostyle, Themodist: Opuses 9, 13, 26, the D-flat Adagio from the Opus 19 F-minor Sonata), but that's it. Astonishingly (especially considering the enquiry of so many German specialist and boutique labels), Simon Callaghan's debut solo disc for Hyperion, is a Nicodé first. And most welcome and generous it is.
The imposingly 'Beethoven-Brahms-Reger' titled Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in D-flat, dedicated to Anton Rubinstein, dominates. Published in Leipzig in 1879 (the same year as the Sonata with its opening 'Appassionata' Neapolitanisms), this comprises a spiritually hallowed tema, eleven Variations in major and minor, a culminant organistic Fugue, and a closing elaboration of the Theme – Baroque in lineage, the 'Bach-Busoni' Fugue is on a grandly flourished, toughly argued scale (getting on for ten minutes). Overall, the sum impression is of a rounded creative identity, the music moving onwards rather than disjunctively, pianistically aware but steering clear of fashionable parameters. A twenty-five-year-old in Dresden, musing at his German grand, cigarillo to hand...
This image, more intimately, is carried further in the ten perfectly formed poësieen making up the Liebesleben cycle, printed the following year. The opening tableau, 'First meeting', is as winning a three minutes as you'll find, the perfect encore of completely defying identity. Past composers stop by. Schumann in the fourth, 'Happiness'. Schubert-Liszt-Erlkönig in the fifth, 'Restless love'. Beethoven-Schubert-Schumann in the sixth, 'Repentance'. A Slavonic soul in the ninth, 'Lonely' (Nicodé toured Galicia and Romania with Tchaikovsky's tempestuous Désirée Artôt in 1878). Frolicking Felix elfins in the E-minor last. Their ghosts, however, are not copied verbatim so much as absorbed. Such “hints of Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Rubinstein are what characterise Nicodé's musical voice”, Jeremy Nicholas reasonably proposes in his booklet note. Brahms's harmonic current in Vienna wasn't his immediately natural sphere.
The six phantasiestücke of the Andenken an Robert Schumann collection (1876), inscribed to Clara – she of anti-Liszt/Wagner/Bruckner sentiment – are youthful essays in pastiche. Skilled for sure, but pastiche nonetheless. If Schumann hadn't been born, they would be remarkable.
Befitting his passion for discovery, Simon Callaghan acquits himself superbly. This is a classy album of deep musicality and sensitivity, pianistically compelling. Release date, May 31.