This is a companion volume to a disc of Finnish composer Erkki Salmenhaara's fine chamber music on FC-Records (FCRCD 9727), also featuring Jouni Somero, and originally released in 2009. This present one first came out in 2003, but the pair appear to have been re-released recently.
As with the chamber music, this volume is a further tonic for all who have been led to believe that composers stopped writing attractive euphonious music fifty or even a hundred years ago. Salmenhaara once again takes his audience back to the heady days of Romanticism, or even at times Baroque, variously calling to mind or paying homage to Rachmaninov, Liszt, Schumann and Bach.
The irony is that Salmenhaara's early career was heavily influenced by the avant-garde, Ligeti in particular, and he employed various experimental techniques in his music before taking the more nostalgic turn typified by these works. On the other hand, these are not old-fashioned in themselves - there are plenty of modern, modal and bitonal harmonies and minimalist-style techniques that conspire to lend these works, the Sonatas especially, an air of timelessness.
There is a hypnotic, almost mystical intensity to the brilliant and unforgettable Third Sonata. Its second movement is an adagio sostenuto, and is an arresting, haunting tribute to Beethoven's famous sonata of the same marking. There are more ghosts too in the third movement, where Salmenhaara gives the instruction quasi lontano in modo di Mahler. The final movement of the small-C classical Second Sonata is in C major, finger-exercise-like in its basic simplicity, yet deeply moving for all that.
The music is just as good on the second disc. The lively First Sonata comes closest to sounding what music written in the 1960s and 1970s 'should' be like, although its feistier, spikier passages still do not venture beyond Prokofiev; in fact, this Sonata marked the beginning of the neo-tonality phase that was to endure until his death. The 17 Little Pieces were Salmenhaara's first published work, written when he was a teenager, probably for youngsters. They are short, unassuming pieces, but much varied, deftly characterised and sometimes quite ascetic. Still better is the neo-Baroque Little Suite, a captivating encore-piece for professionals and talented amateurs everywhere. The recital ends with the Fourth Piano Sonata, an extraordinary work in two movements played almost without a break: a mammoth, mesmerising 723-bar quasi-minimalist section of great intensity demanding great stamina from the pianist, and which ends with a harmonised D-note repeated 83 times, followed by a mere 44-bar adagio of dreamy candour.
FC-Records, previously known as FinnConcert, have kept Jouni Somero well occupied for the last decades. Some listeners may be familiar with his interesting five-CD Anthology of Finnish Piano Music (review of final volume) or his still unfurling complete solo piano music of Sergei Bortkiewicz on eight discs: review of the excellent volume 5, which has details of all previous CDs. In all, Somero has made more than sixty recordings across the musical spectrum, with an emphasis on Romantic repertoire that makes him very well versed, ironically, in the demands of Salmenhaara's music.
Somero's approach to the piano, at least in earlier recordings like this, might be characterised as flat-cap-and-whippet – shirt-leeves rolled up, no nonsense, little in the way of expressive subtlety. On the other hand, he plays with conviction and nimble fingers, and overall comes across as a dependable advocate of Salmenhaara's music.
Some of the works have been recorded at a slightly higher volume than the rest, but generally sound quality is good. On previous recordings Somero's piano has sometimes sounded a bit battered, but this one has a nice smooth tone. FC-Records' booklets will never be collectors' items, but this one is better than usual, with a reasonable amount of detail provided, even if attention to orthography is not of the highest order. Odd cover photos are a bit of a trademark; this one can be accounted for by the fact that Salmenhaara was fond of cats, as is Somero - both are pictured with their favourite pets.
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