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Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Piano Works - Volume 1

Six Pensées Lyriques, op.11 (1909) [19:16]
Lamentations and Consolations, op.17 (1914) [37:13]
Four Morceaux, op.65 (1947) [14:49]
Two Preludes, op.66 (1946) [5:28]
Jouni Somero (piano)
rec. Kuusaa Hall, Kuusankoski, Finland, 29-30 October 2005, 12 February 2006. DDD

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Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Piano Works - volume 2

Ballade, op.42 (1931) [7:19]
Elégie, op.46 (1932) [6:16]
Ten Preludes, op.33 (1926) [29:02]
Minuit - Deux Morceaux, op.5 (1907) [14:41]
Trois Valses, op.27 (1924) [11:31]
Jouni Somero (piano)
rec. Kuusaa Hall, Kuusankoski, Finland, 26-27 May 2007. DDD

Experience Classicsonline

Originally released in 2006 & 2008, these are the first two of a projected eight volumes from Finnish label FinnConcert. This series will encompass complete music for piano of Ukraine-born composer Sergei Bortkiewicz all performed by Finnish soloist Jouni Somero.

Bortkiewicz was born in the Ukraine, at the 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 stand out in his music. Bortkiewicz published around forty works for solo piano (not to forget two symphonies and three piano concertos: review review) 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 to mind a certain Frédéric Chopin, that is no coincidence: the works in Somero's first two recitals, cutting across a long career, reveal Bortkiewicz to be the true heir of Chopin. The second of the two Minuit Pieces op.5 and the semi-chromatic F sharp Prelude in particular are so strikingly reminiscent of Chopin in style and sound, that they feel like lost works rediscovered. Some may cry 'derivative', but Bortkiewicz is an original. Heretical as it may sound, indeed, in some ways he actually takes Chopin to a yet higher plane: his music is darker, and altogether more sustained in its passion, and it is easy to run out of superlatives to describe the dusky lyricism that courses through every single piece.

What matter if Bortkiewicz was more or less unaffected by what Szymanowski or Debussy were doing at the keyboard? His is music which, like that of Saint-Saëns, will always delight audiences that crave beautiful melodies, luscious harmonies, directed intensity, and classically shaped structures. The booklet notes label Bortkiewicz the "Russian Grieg", but in this kind of music that might be construed as damning with faint praise. On the contrary, it would be fairer to describe Grieg, at least in his Lyric Pieces, as a 'lite' version of Bortkiewicz.

There are certainly reminiscences of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, or early Skriabin, yet these works are littered with chords and flourishes straight out of Chopin. These parallels are reinforced by a similar absence of virtuosity for its own sake: leaving the beautiful melodies, wistful harmonies and classically crafted structures to do the talking.

That is not to say there is no bravura passion - the stormy Lamentation in C sharp minor, for example, gives the lie to that, with the E sharp minor and the second of the Four Morceaux not far behind. The overall impression, however, is one of supreme lyricism, nostalgia and considerable beauty. All the music is lovely, but special mention must be made of the eight Lamentations and Consolations, the most Lisztian of Bortkiewicz's music not just by title, and the Quatre Morceaux, both absolutely crammed with fabulous 'old-fashioned' mellifluousness, lyrical ardour and timeless, sensuous harmonies.

The Ten Preludes of 1926 may be an anachronism, but for those who judge music on its own poetic and technical merits rather than on its historical context, the Preludes are a major work of incredible pathos, compelling virtuosity and dazzling splendour. Elsewhere too, from the delirious ending of the otherwise lilting Ballade to the very Rachmaninovian Elégie, from the fervent lyricism of the two contrasted Minuit Morceaux to the mellifluous timelessness of the Three Waltzes, Bortkiewicz's music is a breathtaking compendium of relentlessly inventive melodic sensuousness.

Soloist Jouni Somero evidently keeps himself very busy - according to the FinnConcert website, he has given more than 2,400 concerts or recitals all over the world, whilst his discography apparently exceeds sixty. He plays Bortkiewicz's music expressively enough, though he does not adhere too closely to the score, frequently ignoring or altering dynamics, pedal markings, note and rest values, fermatas, indications to play sforzando, subito forte/piano, staccato, dolcissimo, pensieroso. So these are artistic interpretations rather than a fulfilment of Bortkiewicz's precise instructions, but if anything, Somero is more convincing in volume 2 and he is an admirable champion of Bortkiewicz's scintillating music.

Sound quality is very good, though in Volume 2, the piano does sound slightly laboured. The CD booklets are decidedly pro forma. Those able to read Somero's Finnish original do get more information for their money - the Finnish provides extra biographical paragraphs and a cursory description of the works in Somero's programme. There are typos in the English version that occur in both volumes - for example, one instance in which the composer's name is spelt 'Bortkiwicz'.

For anyone who relishes unforgettable melodies harmonised with imagination in superbly crafted, often profound miniatures, these two volumes are unmissable. This promises to be a marvellous series.

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