Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)

Piano Works - volume 5
4 Pieces, op.10 (1909) [16:57]
3 Morceaux, op.24 (1922) [16:07]
12 Etudes Nouvelles, op.29 (1924) [39:14]
Jouni Somero (piano)
rec. Kuusaa Hall, Kuusankoski, Finland, 12-13 May 2010. DDD
This is the fifth of a projected eight volumes from Finnish label FinnConcert of Russian composer Sergei Bortkiewicz's complete music for piano as performed by Finnish soloist Jouni Somero. The first volume was released in 2006 (FCRCD-9714), the second in 2008 (FCRCD-9719), the third in 2009 (FCRCD-9723) and the fourth in 2010 (FCRCD-9730). They’re all highly commendable.
Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukraine, at that time part of the Russian Empire. In 1925 he acquired Austrian nationality, and spent his latter days in Vienna. His parents and surname are Polish however, and it is those roots that generally stand out in his music. Bortkiewicz published around forty works for solo piano, of which about half a dozen remain lost. His main works include two Sonatas and several sets of Preludes and Etudes, as well as Mazurkas, Waltzes, Nocturnes and a Ballade.
The premiere recordings of many of Bortkiewicz's piano pieces were given by Klaas Trapman, either on Erasmus (WVH 271-272) or Nederlands Muziekinstituut ('Pianoworks' vols. 1, 2, 3, 2002-2006), and others by Stephen Coombs (Hyperion CDD22054, 2008 - reissue of two previous discs), Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21 P21 004, 2001) and Pierre Huybregts (Centaur CRC 2096, 1991). Bortkiewicz scholar and pianist Bhagwan Thadani made a series of self-published recordings, details of which can be found here.
The three works on this CD bring to nineteen the number of opuses covered so far in this splendid series by FinnConcert. The first two volumes revealed Bortkiewicz to be the true heir of Chopin, as the titles listed above suggest. Volume 3, on the other hand, showed lighter aspects of Bortkiewicz's cosmopolitanism, with works more Russian, German, Italian or multinational in nature.
Volumes 3 and 4 brought Bortkiewicz's two important Sonatas, as well as the Ten Etudes op.15, inventive, demanding, often profound, always entertaining pieces in a variety of keys, that hark back to the composer's Polish roots and especially Chopin. Op. 15 was the second of six sets Bortkiewicz wrote across his career, and volume 5 has the third, written more than a decade later, the magnificent 12 New Etudes op.29 in their first complete recording. The individual titles of these Studies may seem irreverent, reading like the dramatis personae of a surreal drama - 'The Blonde', 'The Brunette', 'The Philosopher', 'The Mysterious Stranger', 'The Juggler', 'He who Loves by Moonlight', 'Falstaff'! - but this is a major collection of great pathos and imagination.
There are two further Etudes on this disc, items three and four of the Four Pieces op.10, as radiantly Chopinesque as their individual titles - the first two are 'Ballade' and 'Mazurka' - suggest. Indeed, this CD can be said to mark a return to Bortkiewicz's Polish roots so strongly evidenced by the first two volumes.
All three works in Somero's recital are superbly lyrical, with individual pieces characterised, almost without exception, by unforgettable melody, delectable harmony and irrepressible rhythms sensuously swathed in a mellifluous timelessness, with the well-judged contrastive flourish or outburst of scintillating virtuosity and dramatic intensity. Grieg, Schumann, Liszt, Alkan and early Skriabin are all sometimes brought to mind, but on this disc it is Chopin's spirit that dwells again in Bortkiewicz - whose originality is, nevertheless, unimpeachable.
According to the FinnConcert website - now at, rather than the indicated on the back inlay - Jouni Somero has given more than 2,400 concerts or recitals all over the world, and has made more than sixty recordings. On this disc as previously, Somero plays Bortkiewicz's music with great conviction and nimble fingers. His previously beefy style seems to be mellowing with each new recording - with this CD he might be said to have as finally emerged as the right kind of champion for Bortkiewicz's music.
As in volume 4, recording quality is good - the best so far, in fact. The CD biographical notes of composer and pianist are practically the spitting image of those in all previous volumes. Somero's Finnish original still provides extra biographical notes, but as in volume 3 and 4 there is now at least a translation of Somero's description of the works he plays, though so brief as to be almost a token gesture. The typos in the English from volumes 1-4 have still not been corrected - Bortkiewicz's name, for example, still appears variously as 'Bortkiwicz' and 'Bortliewicz'.
On the whole, though, this makes five out of five quality discs, all of which have much pleasure and interest to offer pianophiles in particular and music-lovers in general. This latest gem-studded volume itself verges on the indispensable.
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This gem-studded volume itself verges on the indispensable.