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Selim PALMGREN (1878-1951)
Piano Concerto No. 4 April op. 85 (1926) [19:08]
Piano Concerto No. 5 op. 99 (1940) [24:41]
A Pastorale in Three Scenes, Op. 50: Elegie; Morning; Evening (1918) [14:22]
Exotic March (1915, 1928) [5:10]
Janne Mertanen (piano)
Pori Sinfonietta/Jan Söderblom
rec. 2016, Promenadisali, Pori, Finland
Reviewed in CD stereo
ALBA ABCD400 SACD [63:21]

I keep expecting the piano concertos of the Finnish composer Selim Palmgren to appear in Hyperion's already bountiful Romantic Piano Concerto series. As it is, Alba and their collaborative musicians have made this excellent disc and it's one fit to stand alongside the complementary first volume. For that earlier CD the pianist was Henri Sigfridsson who also recorded this composer's solo piano music for Ondine. The role of pianist for Alba's second volume is taken here with lyrical brilliance by Janne Mertanen.

Tonal traditionalist Palmgren's piano and composition studies were conducted in Helsinki and Berlin. There his tutors included Wilhelm Berger and Ferruccio Busoni. It's a wonder that he did not rate a movement in Busoni's Gehärnischte Suite. Palmgren spent the first half of the 1920s on the academic staff of Hanson's Eastman School of Music, after which he returned to his homeland.

The five piano concertos are prominent in Palmgren's worklist. They have their dramatic moments but, among the world's works for piano and orchestra, belong in what you might call the decorative feel-good school. There you will find the five Saint-Saëns concertos, Henri Collet's Flamenco Concerto, Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, John Carmichael's Concerto Folklorico, Hekel Tavares' Concerto in Brazilian Forms, Bax's Maytime in Sussex and the Yellow River Concerto. Certainly, they are late-romantic but for all their challenges to technique they are not works of towering passions or deeply carved extremes of the emotions. Their playful light-suffused chatter and showy cheeriness make them easy-winners. The single- movement Fourth Concerto is memorable for its sprays of notes and cheery orientalisms. There is an element of Rachmaninov-style rhetoric but Palmgren soon swirls the listener back into allusive pictorialism. Around its central core things become a degree or two more cool but this pastoral sorrow charms rather than leaving scar tissue or the memory of a shiver. Soon the chiming piano imperceptibly claws us back towards the sunshine which starts the final lively dancing episode. It's all over in just short of twenty minutes.

The Piano Concerto No.5 is in three movements. The opening Allegro Moderato mixes catchy glittering piano work with sighing romance usually allocated to the strings. The Andante tranquillo shares the slightly chilly embrace of the central part of the Fourth Concerto. The movement's slow amble avoids the music becoming inert but Palmgren is telling us that there is time to wonder. The Allegro vivace finale starts with a quiet and slowly accelerating folk-dance at mezzo forte. Soon the music speeds up yet further with athletic writing for the pianist and stomping emphasis from the orchestra. The innocent countryside atmosphere is leavened by some pages that suggest troll-threats and others that take a quick grasp on heroism.

The appealing A Pastorale in Three Scenes, consists of three movements: Morning; Elegie; Evening. The first of these has a chirpy countryside bustle matched with light-on-the-palate lyrical melodies. The pristine icy-chiming sweetness of the pastel-shaded Elegie dispels any expectations of melancholy. That sweetness makes room for passion towards the end before subsiding into the soundworld of the opening. It can be thought of as a gentle echo of Sibelius's Rakastava meeting Butterworth's Idylls and Vaino Raitio's lighter music. The catchy Exotic March livens things up with its skirling Chinoiserie accent. This little triptych can be counted among a little clutch of works including the more lightly orchestrated movements from Delius's Hassan, Nielsen's Aladdin and the Oriental March from Belshazzar's Feast by Sibelius.

Finlandia recorded all five Palmgren concertos with various pianists in the early 1990s. These then appeared twice with other valuable Palmgren material: once on a Finlandia Meet the Composer double then, in 2000, on a Warner Ultima twofer. There the Turku Philharmonic was conducted by the very same Jacques Mercier who has more recently presided over Timpani's two orchestral Schmitt discs. The Pori Sinfonietta who were also the chosen band for volume 1 are again an apt and empathetic choice. Pori was Palmgren's birthplace. Let's hope that someone will take an interest in re-releasing Palmgren's Daniel Hjort - an Opera in Six Tableaux (1907 rev. 1932) which, when recorded by Finlandia, was conducted by Jan Söderblom's father, Ulf. Also crying out for attention is the three-disc Finlandia survey of Palmgren's solo piano music recorded in the 1980s by Izumi Tateno (b.10 November 1936). Tateno made the pioneering LP recording of the Second Piano Concerto in the 1960s with the Helsinki PO conducted by Jorma Panula: Fennica LP (SS4) and Finnish HMV 5E 063-34 471.

Alba have done well in all aspects: design, booklet content (English, Finnish, Swedish) and ringing yet intimate recording quality. Thanks to the selfless advocacy of Mertanen, Söderblom and his orchestra it all works well for these works of brightly polished innocence.

Rob Barnett



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