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Palmgren: The River - Sigfridsson, Söderblom

Palmgren: The River - Sigfridsson, Söderblom

Alba Records  ABCD 385

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Palmgren, Selim (1878 – 1951):
Piano Concertos 1 - 3
7 Pieces for Violin & Piano, Op. 78


Henri Sigfridsson (piano)
Jan Söderblom (violin & conductor)
Pori Sinfonietta

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Review by John Miller - June 16, 2017

The music of Finnish composer Selim Gustaf Adolf Palmgren (1878-1951) rarely appears in the record catalogues these days, or is hardly ever found in recital rooms. I was an observer of a segment of Palmgren's post-mortal decline; as a youth learning the piano in the early 60s, I noticed that the many pieces of his wide range of piano music in teaching volumes vanished in a few years (outside of Finland).

Selim was born in Pori, a city and municipality on the west coast of Finland, a year after the Pori Sinfonietta orchestra was formed. Alba aptly chose to have the chamber orchestra as the accompaniment for their new recording of Palmgren's piano concertos. His first teacher was his sister, Anni, who had studied with a pupil of Liszt. He studied at the Conservatory in Helsinki from 1895 to 1899, then at age 20 he travelled to Berlin to study with Conrad Ansorge (a pupil of Liszt) and to Weimar where he took a masterclass with Ferrucio Busoni. He lived in Italy from 1907 to 1909, where he wrote his opera 'Daniel Hjort'.

The première of Palmgren's first Piano Concerto in 1904, with Palmgren as soloist, was a huge success which secured his successful career. Part of this acclaim was partly due to his being married to, and performing with, the internationally renowned soprano Maikki Järnefelt. During a concert tour of the USA in 1919 he was offered a professorship in composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Palmgren held this post (previously offered to Sibelius, who had declined) from 1921 to 1926. From 1939 until his death in 1951, Palmgren was Professor of Composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

Palmgren undoubtedly had an affinity for the late Romantic tradition, but he also had a genuine interest in baroque music. Although some of his piano works took their clue from Schumann and Chopin (on the basis of his splendid pianism, he was also sometimes called the "Chopin of the North"), but he was also the first Finnish composer to make use of Impressionist elements. Finnish folk music was another element in piano, song and the piano concertos. Not surprisingly, during his teaching in America, Jazz rhythms and melodies of Gershwin were also insinuated subtly into his music, especially in the piano concertos. Debussy's impressionism was also often used. Rachmaninov's rich melodics also attracted Palmgren. All these styles were inspiringly merged into a style of his own.

Palmgren's oeuvre consists mainly of piano works (character pieces, Etudes, Preludes, and a Sonata), chamber music, plus single and chorus songs. Under the shadow of Sibelius, he composed no symphonies or but a number of short works for orchestra which attracted audiences. His five piano concertos, which used to be quite popular during his lifetime, are florid romantic works in the style of Liszt and Rachmaninov . We must also remember another factor of the composers work - "Palmgren was not just a Darling of the concert hall - he was also considered by colleagues and other music experts as a professional to look up to, and his piano music was considered almost visionary." - Jouni Kaipainen.

Henri Sigfridsson (b.1974 in Turku) is a pianist whose career has rocketed in a short time, partly because of his winning prestigious Piano Competitions such as the 1st International Beethoven Competition Bonn of 2005 and many others. He has played with the great European orchestras and Sigfridsson feels a very deep commitment to chamber music; he is an excellent for playing the piano for Palmgren's Op. 78 Pieces for violin and piano at the last part of this SACD.

Conductor of this disc is Jan Söderblom (b. 1970), new to me. Born in a family of musicians, he was perhaps destined to a fine musical career as well. He took on the violin at an early age, and played solo concerts, then joined the New Helsinki Quartet. However, he was getting more interested in orchestral music and took the Sibelius Academy's conductor studies in 1997. After that, he has generated a staggering list of conducting around Europe, working in most of the finest orchestras, as far as Scotland. At the same time he has continued his solo engagements, gaining prizes from Violin Festivals and playing solo in many of the great halls mentioned for his conducting above.

I was very impressed by the Pori Sinfonietta under Söderblom's baton. From the booklet photo they number 26 players. The lower ratio of strings to wind instruments reveals the depth of Palmgren's sparklingly neat orchestration, especially with entertaining conversations between solo winds and piano. He brought much delight to the short orchestral pieces which complete the disc.Söderblom also has another career, that of violin solos and parts in chamber music, so he plays the violin part of the Palmgren's Op. 78.

It is the second of Palmgren's piano concertos which begins this disc, presumably because it has a romantic, evocative name of "River" which looks well on the front cover of the disc. Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 33 'The River' (Virta in Finnish) is the most popular and highly-rated of his five concertos. The river in connection is the Kokenmäki, which winds its way through Pori. Palmgren's inspiration is not specifically programmatic but festoons the music with fast and slow flowing, or gushing runs and arpeggios which themselves suggest a river. The opening of this concerto is unique; barely audible tremors of strings support dark, hushed solo woodwind, the tension of which gradually arrives, stormily opening the theme of a folk-song. The Swedish folk-tune, Nächens polska, offers various changes, and the shivering strings return in the second section, corresponding with a slow movement. A vigorous piano cadenza which introduces the last section brings the tune to a mighty hymn.

The First Piano Concerto of 1905 is fully romantic, Weber's Konzertstück and Liszt's First Piano concerto in Emin perhaps accounting for its single movement structure. Another folk-song provides material for this work, a theme from a religious one from South Ostrobothnia, which first appears with a clarinet over a lyrical bubbling from the piano. The frequent use of raised 6th notes suggest similar Sibelius themes. As with the Second Piano Concerto, the opening of the work is quite unique. The rest is an attractive romantic and poetic piece, with inventively attractive material and plenty of swirling arpeggiation and virtuosic cadenzas by the piano that carries the listener to the end, when the bass drum, cymbals and vigorous brass enter to complete the concerto..

Piano Concerto No.3, Op. 41 (1916) has the name "Metamorphoses" (Transformations) which gives a hint of the structure of this concerto. Once more Palmgren starts with a solemn melody from Osnobothnia, this time a Lutheran one, which is not revealed in all its glory until the piano reveals it. There are nine variations, the middle one a spectacular solo cadenza. The variations each show a particular mood, from slow and lugubrious to a funny dance in which the Spanish castanets unexpectedly go clacking away. The finale is glorious, returning to the varied theme and a shower of mighty octaves on the piano.

Concluding this SACD, the conductor and concert pianist resume their other work in music, solo piano and violin in Palmgren's Op.78, 7 short pieces, each with a distinct character. Canzonetta, for example, with a husky G-string violin song above the piano's atmosphere of sympathy and Preghiera (Prayer), warm and becalming. Tiny but delectable, and a reminder of what audiences miss because certain reviewers and critics have imposed a post-mortal decline on Selim Palmgren.

Fortunately, the performances and recording on this disc are jointly excellent. The international expert Simon Fox-Gál is producer, engineer and editor at Promenadisali, Pori, where he has the acoustic measure of a modern, high-quality culture and events concert hall. The 5.1 Multichannel is very effective, although the disc required playing at a louder than usual on my equipment.

This disc, together with Alba's 'April' (http://hraudio.net/editreview.php?title=12293) which has the 4th and 5th Piano Concertos, might help to further reverse Palmgren's so-called "lack of individualism" which some critics used to begin a steady decline in popularity after his death. I hope you will try this splendid SACD and also some of the other kinds of music written by Selim Palmgrem, a skilled composer who produced tuneful and attractive music, even if he wasn't Sibelius, Mozart or Beethoven.

Copyright © 2017 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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