Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Piano Works - volume 4
Piano Sonata no.2, op.60 (1942) [25:57]
Aus Meiner Kindheit, op.14 (1911) [18:39]
Ten Preludes, op.15 (1911) [30:06]
Jouni Somero (piano)
rec. Kuusaa Hall, Kuusankoski, Finland, 6-7 November 2008. DDD
FINNCONCERT FCRCD 9730 [74:47]
 
Originally released in 2010, this is the fourth of a projected eight volumes from Finnish label FinnConcert of 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), 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 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.
 
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 also made a series of self-published recordings, details of which can be found here.
 
The three works on this CD bring to sixteen 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.
 
Volume 3 also brought Bortkiewicz's early First Piano Sonata, full of dazzling virtuosity and dramatic intensity from the first bars to the final, alongside trademark beautiful melodies and luscious harmonies, as well as the timeless sensuousness of the slow movement. After previously referring to the First as a "magnificent Sonata", Somero describes the Second as his own personal favourite among Bortkiewicz's piano works, and it is easy to hear why - it is both utterly conservative and utterly delectable. The big chord rumbustiousness of the first movement gives way to a catchy, rubato-rich allegretto, whilst a lilting, light-fingered, yet very heartfelt slow movement leads into an exciting, uplifting finale. There are borrowings from and reminiscences of Rachmaninov, Chopin, Grieg, Alkan and Skriabin throughout, but Bortkiewicz still manages to affirm his own originality. Though he gave the premiere in 1942, the work was only published in 1995 after considerable detective work on the part of Bhagwan Thadani, as he explains in his essay at the link given above.
 
The remaining two works take the listener back to an early phase of Bortkiewicz's career, shortly after the First Sonata. Aus Meiner Kindheit ('From My Childhood') is a sort of teenage version of Schumann's Kinderszenen, a suite of six short scenes in more or less chronological order, from the warmth of 'What the Nurse Sang' to the unsettling shadows of 'The Dark Room' and the mock-suavity of 'The Dancing Lesson', from the sweet 'First Love', with its presumably deliberate allusions to Grieg's best-loved song, to the inevitable 'First Sorrow', and finally the grand - grandiose - plans of 'When I am a Man'. The Ten Etudes op.15, the second of six sets Bortkiewicz wrote across his career, are inventive, demanding, often profound, always entertaining pieces in a variety of keys, that hark back to the composer's Polish roots and 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. On this disc as previously, Somero plays Bortkiewicz's music with conviction and nimble fingers. His beefy style still seems better suited to loud music than delicate pieces, but with each new recording he better approximates the right kind of champion for Bortkiewicz's music, as he demonstrates in some of the gentler Etudes.
 
After a dip in volume 3, recording quality is good, ditto editing. The CD booklet is again pro forma, with biographical notes of composer and pianist virtually identical to those in all previous volumes. Somero's Finnish original still provides extra biographical notes, but as in volume 3 there is now a translation of Somero's description of the works he plays, though so brief as to be almost pointless. The typos in the English from volumes 1-3 have still not been corrected - nothing has been done, for example, about the instance in which the composer's name is spelt 'Bortkiwicz'.
 
On balance, this is another quality disc, and no pianophile should be without Bortkiewicz's Piano Sonatas or his sets of Etudes.
 
Byzantion
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
 
Another quality disc. No pianophile should be without Bortkiewicz's Piano Sonatas or his sets of Etudes.