The Twentieth Century's harvest of music yielded variety
greater than that provided by any other century.
In the field of piano music the century moved from
widespread technical literacy to a small field of celebrity players
whose art is experienced in concert and on various forms of sound carrier.
At the start of the century learning the piano was one of the necessary
social accomplishments in most of the so-called civilised world. Now,
just into the new millennium, few learn the instrument as a social skill.
If it is learnt it is with a view to a musical career.
The variety of music encompassed by the century ran
from Ketèlbey, Joplin, Mayerl and Confrey through to Godowsky,
Holbrooke, Bliss, Bax, R S Coke, Lionel Sainsbury and Medtner in the
middle ground to the severity, danger and profusion of Shostakovich,
Sorabji, Ronald Stevenson, Howard Ferguson, Czeslaw Marek, John Foulds
and Malcolm Macdonald.
In the wilder extremities we encounter experimentalists
like Cage, Stockhausen, Ornstein, Henry Cowell and Conlon Nancarrow
whose preludes for prepared player-piano are far too little known and
remain beautiful despite the 'mechanical' element.
The Nordic countries have not, in general, been thought
of as originators of fine piano music. Grieg, Palmgren, Sinding and,
more up to date, Rosenberg are exceptions. Sibelius wrote plenty as
the lumbering but valuable BIS, Continuum and Naxos cycles prove but
the best of Sibelius is not for the keyboard although Kyllikki has
its moments as Glenn Gould proved in his CBS recording.
For those who know of Eduard Tubin, the Estonian composer
exiled to Sweden, his fame rests on his symphonies of which there are
ten and the stub of an eleventh. Vardo Rumessen, long an active ambassador
for Estonian music, is president of the International Tubin Society.
A pianist of world rank he has put a global career to one side and instead
has promoted Estonian music with a vigour and luminous advocacy matched
by an outstanding intellectual and artistic reach.
The first disc announces itself with the Six
Preludes - products of the Estonian years (1927-35). They range
through Debussian grave beauty (Jardin sous la pluie) in Nos.
1 and 2 to grave beauty to the haunted Baxian hill-song of No. 3 and
spring-like freshness of 4 and 5 (the latter a joyous walking song)
to the militant sourness of No. 6.
The Sonatina No. 1 is his first large-scale
work at 32.20. It was written in Heino Eller's class. Four movements
were written but only three survived. The first is a big span of splintery
grandeur - Chopin into Rachmaninov - lively with pearly filigree. It
was sold by the composer as a separate work. The second movement is
a rollicking dark scherzo. The andante mesto is highly romantic
standing apart from the impressionistic tendency of the preludes.
Hallilaul (1925) is virtually a prelude
in oils of Nordic impressionism. The Album Leaf (1926)
is a simpler version of the preludes. The Three Pieces for Children
(1935) are out of a Petrushkan music box. Similarly inclined
is the sturdy little March for Rana (1978). The Three
Estonian Folk Dances whisk us through a heavy-footed stomp via
a rustic whirl to a flat-footed distant shade of a birthday song. The
Prelude No. 1 (1949) exudes an exhausted and malign smile with
desperate business in hand followed by a trudge and finished by a single
downward slashing figure.
Folk music was a strong current in Tubin's music as
is evident from the 1945 Variations on an Estonian Folk Tune (1945,
rev 1981) [11.54] which is highly coloured and exciting, running ragged
variations on two folk tunes and achieving a splendid tragic nobility.
The Ballade on a theme by Mart Saar (1945)
[10.12] is on Saar's choral song Seven Moss Clad Tombs. It was
written in Stockholm. Archaic gravity swings this bell-swung piece.
Its grim jaw-set is like that of the 1949 prelude - not at all soft-edged.
This is a Bardic oration ending with typically Rachmaninovian austere
The Four Folk Songs from My Country [15.06]
are from 1947. The carefree music-box rondel of the first does not prepare
the listener for the darkened goblin paths of the second song linked
as it is with his music for the Kratt ballet. The Polka of
the third has many a rustic hiccup as well as the dissonant pepper of
the Estonian zither. The final section rises to a craggy splendour out
of dissonance and a medley of rhythmic disruption.
The Sonatina No. 1 began life as a Sonata. Its
pith and marrow is from hyper-romantic genetic material flooded with
flourishes and nobility. The work opens up a new acreage of repertoire
where Rachmaninov could be rested and instead works like this and the
preludes of Tobias, Tubin and Eller would be lofted high alongside works
such as the Lionel Sainsbury Preludes. The Sonatina stands midstream
between Tubin's sonatas 1 and 2. Expression becomes more awkward in
the second movement but this is still a highly romantic apparatus. The
movement ends as if at a bier-side. The presto cuts a Gallic dash and
a lighter mood than you associate with the Tubin of the cold notes.
He soon reasserts himself in echoing stone, the play of ice and the
crackle of fire.
The third CD opens with Seven Preludes (1976)
[14.34]. The score is marked 'Handen, October 1976'. These works were
premiered by Rumessen in June 1977. The second is clearly influenced
by the grotesquerie of Shostakovich in which Tubin mixes a shimmer which,
to me, suggests the Northern Lights. The petulant Third Prelude's argumentative
impatience gives way to the resolute and terse Fourth. The Fifth is
based on an Estonian tune which shimmies like a North African melody
and develops in directions which are hard and joyous. The finale uses
a chaconne - a favourite device - developing an impressive defiance.
The seven part Suite on Estonian Shepherd Melodies
(1959) takes us through many transformations from lonely eminence,
Prokofievian shatter, to the impressionistic wash of the rain. This
is writing which seems to shadow the filigree of Godowsky's Java
Suite and of Bax's Winter Legends. The movements are very
brief. The final andante wanders dreamy classical pastures in
the same sun-dazzled mood found in Bantock's Pagan Symphony. Many
Scandinavian composers empathised with a classical Mediterranean Elysium.
The Second Sonata [25.08] is separated by twenty-two
years from the First Sonata and has 4pp of the booklet devoted to it.
The first movement's feathery dashing glitter has a touch or ten of
cold inhumanity. The swirling winds of conflict are typically Nordic
like Nystroem's storms in Iskavet. Other composers are recalled:
Ornstein's gales of notes, Mossolov's dexterity, Prokofiev's steely
wartime sonatas. The accessibility of the music is let in by Tubin's
Rachmaninovian accent discernible among stone-hewn flurries and dark
matters suggestive of John Ireland's Ballade. The cold Lapp tunes
of the second movement chart the far side of Saturn or Holst's cold
Betelgeuse with awkward fistfuls of notes. The iron-shod Prokofiev
hammering of the wartime sonatas returns in the third movement with
the shimmering aurora borealis cold, supernal and threatening
in its disconnection from humanity. This Sonata should be taken up by
Mark Gasser whose staggering performance of Ronald Stevenson's Passacagalia
on DSCH is available from him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by
Raymond Clarke, Murray Mclachlan or Marc-André Hamelin.
The booklet is 84 pages long with notes in English,
French and German. The English version covers 20 pages. It is delightfully
crowded with pictures of the composer and includes forty music exx.
There is no feeling anywhere in the collection that
Rumessen or BIS are going through a routine exercise. There is nothing
of the feeling of the dutiful surface skating evident in some 'complete
The cover of the CD features a 1973 mezzotint Norrskenet
(Northern Lights), Kaljo Pollu.
No collection already including the piano music of
Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Marek, Stevenson or Sorabji is complete without
this set. The music ranges through various gradations from pleasantrie
to a hard-eyed and intelligent romanticism.