Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Piano Works - volume 3
The Little Wanderer, op.21 (1922) [20:14]
Six Preludes, op.13 (1910) [14:08]
Marionettes, op.54 (1938) [11:58]
Piano Sonata no.1 in B, op.9 (1909) [21:19]
Jouni Somero (piano)
rec. Kuusaa Hall, Kuusankoski, Finland, 11-12 January 2006. DDD
FINNCONCERT FCRCD 9723 [67:50]
Originally released in 2009, this is the third of a projected eight volumes from Finnish label FinnConcert of Russian composer Sergei Bortkiewicz's complete music for piano performed by Finnish soloist Jouni Somero. The first volume was released in 2006 (FCRCD-9714), the second in 2008 (FCRCD-9719) - see review.
Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukraine, at that time part of the Russian Empire. In 1925 he acquired Austrian nationality, and spent the last part of his life 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, as well as Mazurkas, Etudes, Waltzes and a Ballade. If those titles bring Chopin to mind, that is no coincidence: the works on the two previous volumes have revealed Bortkiewicz to be the true heir of Chopin.
However, volume 3 shows perhaps other, lighter aspects of Bortkiewicz's cosmopolitanism. The Six Preludes, for example, are more Russian or German in character - less brooding, certainly, than previous sets - whilst The Little Wanderer and Marionettes are by their very nature multinational. Even the gorgeous andantino placido nocturne, the fifth Prelude, is more Italian than Polish. On the other hand, the last of the Preludes is pure Chopin!
Two of the works on the CD, The Little Wanderer, op.21 and Marionettes, op.54 were written for younger pianists to play and learn from. The former consists of thirteen short pieces - all but one two minutes or less - that together describe, in broad nationalistic colours, a train journey through Europe. After a lingering Farewell, the puffing Train's Departure is a lot of fun for young audiences (less so for young fingers!), as is the Scotch Reel apparently heard in England! The booklet notes label Bortkiewicz the "Russian Grieg", and the journey ends in Norway, with a brief allusion to the real Grieg. Marionettes consists of one- to two-minute sketches of various characters, again mainly nationalistic, from the Spanish Lady to the Cossack, with a Teddy Bear and Harlequin thrown in for the toddlers. Both sets are quite straightforward and unprepossessing, predictable though pleasantly tuneful enough for children in particular to enjoy.
There is no doubt about the most impressive and important work on the disc, which Somero saves till last: the three-movement Piano Sonata no.1 in B. There is dazzling virtuosity and dramatic intensity from the very first bars to the final, but there are also his trademark beautiful melodies and luscious harmonies, as well as timeless sensuousness in the slow movement. Bortkiewicz skilfully shapes all these elements into a very satisfying lyrical whole. Again there is little - surprisingly, in light of the music of the first two volumes in this series - that resembles Chopin.
According to the FinnConcert website - now at fcrecords.fi, rather than the finnconcert.fi 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. The front covers of this series have all featured Somero in drab, sometimes fey poses, and volume 3 is no different. The potential buyer must be grateful for small mercies, however: on his latest recording for FinnConcert, a CD of piano music by Vladimir Rebikov (FCRCD 9739), Somero poses more like a Mafia don than a typical pianist, with dark sunglasses, leather jacket and fat cigar!
Appearances notwithstanding, Somero plays Bortkiewicz's music with conviction and nimble fingers, which is some compensation for the finesse he sometimes lacks. In fact, in fairness to Somero, this disc was recorded more than a year before volume 2, and even before parts of volume 1; by the second release Somero's performance carried considerably more conviction.
Recording quality is good enough, though down on the first two volumes. Editing is untidier, though far from poor. By the sound of it the Steinway D has been around the block a few times. The CD booklet is pro forma, with biographical notes of composer and pianist identical to those in volume 1, and the layout less aesthetic. Somero's Finnish original still provides extra biographical paragraphs, but finally there is now a translation of Somero's brief description of the works he plays. The typos in the English from volumes 1 and 2 have still not been corrected - nothing has been done, for example, about the one instance in which the composer's name is spelt 'Bortkiwicz'. Unfortunately more errors have crept in, the dodgiest of which are: 'Sleigh Ride' becoming 'Sleight Drive', 'Through the Steppes' appearing as 'Throught the Steps', and the Piano Sonata apparently being in the key of H major.
Not as compelling as either of the first two volumes, in the final reckoning, but Bortkiewicz's "magnificent Sonata", as Somero properly describes it, has a right to be in every pianophile's collection.
Byzantion Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
Not as compelling as the first two volumes but Bortkiewicz's Sonata is magnificent.