Palmgren: April - Mertanen / Söderblom
Alba Records ABCD 400
Classical - Orchestral
Palmgren: Piano Concertos 4 'April' & 5, A Pastoral in Three Scenes, Exotic March
Janne Mertanen (piano)
Pori Symphony Orchestra
Jan Söderblom (conductor)
Review by John Miller - June 11, 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).
Consulting Hyperion Records' series of 'The Romantic Piano', I was expecting to find at least one of Palmgren's five piano concertos in its present series of 50 volumes; as they say that "Fifty-nine of these works are première recordings and many other featured works have only been recorded once before, often in clearly inferior versions and frequently cut'. But so far the only Palmgren offered by Hyperion is 'The Maiden's Prayer', a salon piano compilation.
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. 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 (as did many other pianistic composers of his era, see the contents of Hyperions 'The Romantic Piano Concerto'). 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.
Pianist Janne Mertanen (b. 1967), was a pupil of Erik T Tawaststjerna and Lazar Berman. In 2015 he was given the honour of being made a 'Steinway Artist'. His playing captured my first encounter with his empirical recording of Alba's concertos by Grieg and Schumann (Grieg, Schumann: Piano concertos - Mertanen). He is also particularly well known for his Chopin. Mertanen's recently released 5-CD of Sibelius Piano Works was commented by reviewer Malcolm Hayes, stating "his playing offers penetrating lyrical focus, a mesmerising range of keyboard colours, and an instinct for shaping one outwardly bland phrase after another in a way that always feels alive". These highly musical characters (and more) are certainly applied to Palmgren's piano concertos on this disc.
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 guided the Pori Sinfonietta into the same flowing styles as Janne Mertane's piano, but brought much delight to the short orchestral pieces which complete the disc.
Selim's Piano Concerto 4 was first performed by him in 1927, and is probably the most popular of all his piano concerts. Concerto 4 is In a single movement, but with three classic-like parts. His title of 'April', referred to the many poems about the vernal equinox, a part of the year very important to Finns after their deep winters. He had to explain repeatedly to critics that his style was not programme music but moods awakened by Spring. Much is impressionistic (a style not found in the first three piano concertos), and there is delicate use of jazz rhythms in the orchestra and its orchestration. These add colour rather than structure.
Mertanen begins the concerto's first part with an emotional solo, which is assertive, joyous and wonderfully articulate, picturing the effect of the arrival of Winter. Much of the solo part is full of trills and dizzying roulades, a glittering effect. Towards the end, a romantic rich melody surges into full orchestra with growing majestic pride, roundly celebrating Nature. The second part is magical, hushed gently as introduced by the piano, which then stands back, leaving the orchestra for most of the time. The hazy violins seem to be enchanted with the growing new Spring life, and its freshness is expressed by a cor anglais in the 'lazy' style of Debussy. A magical section, but next passing into a cheerful scherzo in the third section, full of energy and pulling some themes from the first section. With another romantic melody bursting into a march-like end, Winter is now completely overridden by Spring.
The Piano Concerto No. 5, Op.99 (1940-1941) was produced as the last active stage of Palmgren's career, "to the accompaniment of bombs" he tells us with melancholia. He did not play the piano but was the conductor at the première. The first movement, Allegro Moderato, concentrates on a folksy Finish dance which is developed. Its scoring in particular suggest it has more than a hint of Central Europe's folk music, not surprisingly because early residents there once migrated up to Finland. The music is more classical than the other four piano concertos, but it involves tension in large crescendi, followed by melodic relaxation. The piano again has exciting roulardes and many trills. The second movement, Andante tranquillo, enjoins Mertanen to play with gentle delicacy, followed in counter points by woodwind, and ending with a twinkly cadenza. Third movement's beginning is with an ominous deep marching rhythm in basses and cellos, above which another folk-like march on the piano strides by. This develops into a running version as the percussion begins to dominate, ending in a satisfying resolution.
The 5th Piano Concerto was a brilliant success. The day after the première, Sibelius telephoned Palmgren to tell him it was by far the best concerto that he had written, as he heard on the radio.
No less than 5 delightful pieces for orchestra by Selim complete this disc. The first, 'A Pastoral in Three Scenes Op. 50' (1918) was written with the Finnish Civil War still in action, so writing the Pastoral concept perhaps consoled him. Over the three movements, the first is fast, followed by two slow. 'Morning'- based on Finnish folk song and rhythms, offers hope, perhaps for the end of the war. 'Elegie' - for those who had lost their lives and the grief of their families. A shimmering opening, oboe coolly suggesting the atmosphere, and war-suggesting trumpet comments. Then an anguished mid-section with the entry of the harp joining a rich Rachmaninoff-like rich melody, slowly played and ending with a tender finish, playing up to the stars. 'Evening' - warm and deeply lyrical, played by the Sinfonietta's achingly glowing nostalgia.
After this time of emotional music, Söderblom concludes with an amusing piece. The 'Exotic March' (1915 - 1928) began as a piano piece, but transcribed to orchestra by Palmgren (there is still a piano part, possibly played by Mertanen). Bright and loose to begin with, the sound erupts about half-way through to a rousing end, which made the audience at the première demanded a repeat.
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. Mertanen's Steinway sounds very realistic, especially in the deep bass, and is balanced very well with the orchestra, which is layered out to place each group clearly.
This disc, together with Alba's 'River' which has the 1st to 3rd Piano Concertos (http://hraudio.net/addreview.php?title=11432), 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