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Selim PALMGREN (1878-1951)
Piano Concerto No. 2 op. 33 The River (1912) [23:19]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor op. 13 (1903) [14:44]
Piano Concerto No. 3 op. 49 (1915) [18:36]
Pieces for violin and piano, Op. 78 (Prelude [2:06]; Humoresque [2:07]; Canzonetta [2:41]; The Fiddler [1:08]; Finnish Romance [1:49]; Oriental Serenade [1:23]; Preghiera [3:12]) [14:28]
Henri Sigfridsson (piano); Jan Söderblom (violin)
Pori Sinfonietta/Jan Söderblom
rec. 11-12 September 2014, Promenadisali, Pori, Finland
ALBA ABCD385 SACD [71:52]

I knew of Palmgren because his West Finnish Dance had been recorded by Benno Moisewitsch during the days of the 78 and Myra Hess had recorded his Cradle Song. It wasn't these works that did it for me. It was a Radio 3 broadcast of the Piano Concerto No 2 The River (20:50) on 26 February 1977 that won me over. The pianist was Izumi Tateno with the Helsinki PO conducted by Jorma Panula. This was a broadcast either from a Fennica LP (SS4) or more likely from the Finnish HMV variant: 5E 063-34 471 - a pretty exotic beast in the UK at that that time. That Palmgren album coupled Einar Englund's Piano Concerto, also played by Tateno. That LP saw good service on the BBC in the 1970s-80s with at least half a dozen broadcasts - many of them listener request programmes. In a break from the predictable the BBC even commissioned a completely new studio broadcast to mark the centenary of Palmgren's birthday on 16 February 1878. This involved the pianist Philip Challis with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by its usual stalwart of those years, Ashley Lawrence.

As for Tateno he went on to record no fewer than three CDs of Palmgren's solo piano music for Finlandia although not the other four piano concertos. Finlandia however did not finish there. In 2007 they released Palmgren's Daniel Hjort - an Opera in Six Tableaux (1907 rev. 1932) with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra and Ulf Söderblom. In the 1980s a 2 CD set from Finlandia and Warner coupled all five piano concertos and the orchestral Pictures from Finland with a selection of the solo piano pieces including the Piano Sonata, the solos all played by Tateno. An honour roll of pianists (Juhani Lagerspetz, Matti Raekkalio, Eero Heinonen, Raija Kerppo) played the concertos alongside the Turku orchestra conducted by Jacques Mercier. Its most recent avatar was an inexpensive Warner Ultima twofer. Those recordings were made 1989-2000.

Like the other two concertos, here the Second is in one movement. It's very likeable and would fit well with you if you have a taste for the Grieg Concerto. You'll need to embrace 'modern' insurgencies from Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto and woodwind writing from early Sibelius. It's a most poetic and romantic piece with a decorative singing quality and plenty of swirling arpeggiation that carries over into its most outgoing pages. The First Concerto also uses that liquid arpeggiation from the soloist and over it drapes summery-sleepy woodwind writing. This transforms into some deliciously dancing, perky and alert writing which sometimes calls to mind the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. Although the Third Concerto has some more darkly flecked moments broadly we are still in the same region with plenty of lissom melody, fantastic dancing and glittering writing. Other carefree piano and orchestra works spring to mind as parallels including the Litolff concertos, the five Saint-Saëns concertos, the Arensky and Bax's Maytime in Sussex. The Pieces for violin and piano, Op. 78 are salon charmers and a little more. These run to an introspective Prelude, a hearty Humoresque, a thoughtful Canzonetta which is more of a lullaby, The Fiddler which suggests the Grieg of the Slåtter, a rather English-pastoral Finnish Romance, a sinister cold-hearted Oriental Serenade and a final drowsy Preghiera.

Henri Sigfridsson is the brilliant pianist for this well recorded disc of these truly attractive pieces. Sigfridsson is no stranger to Palmgren. His disc of the composer's solo piano music came out on Ondine in 2012 (review). Violinist Jan Söderblom (also the conductor) has just the right steady touch for these miniatures. He lets them bloom modestly without trying to make more of them than they can sustain. The Finnish composer, pianist, and conductor Selim Palmgren was born in Pori so there is a symmetry in the orchestra for this disc being the Pori Sinfonietta.

Palmgren studied at Helsinki Conservatory in from 1895 to 1899 then furthered his gifts with years spent working in Berlin with Busoni. In 1921 he moved to the USA for a spell teaching composition at the Eastman School of Music. Palmgren wrote extensively for solo piano and for voice. In addition there are suites of incidental music for orchestra, patriotic cantatas (the title of one of these looks promising: Väinämöinen ja karhunkaato), a couple of military/municpal marches, a concert-fantasy for violin and orchestra, a ballade for orchestra and an unfinished clarinet concerto.

The very full liner-note is by Kimmo Korhonen and is in Finnish and English; the latter running to six pages.

This is a delightful disc and surely the forerunner to a volume 2. We must hope for the next disc to include the last two Palmgren piano concertos: No. 4, April (1928) and No. 5 (1940). Perhaps the line-up will bring us some of the other orchestral treasures not previously recorded commercially including the Exotic March and the Cinderella Suite. Then how about a reissue of that Daniel Hjort opera.

Rob Barnett



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