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Toivo KUULA (1883-1918)
Complete Works for Solo Piano
Satukuvia Op.19 (1912) [15:11]
Three Piano Pieces Op.3b [13:05]
Juhlamarssi Op.13b [9:24]
Lampaan Polska [4:14]
Air Varié in E minor [2:12], Schottis [3:26]
Six Piano Pieces Op.26 [23:34]
Two Song Transcriptions Op.37 [5:21]
Vanha Syyslaulu Op.24 No.3 [1:39]
Invention (C.1905) [1:19]
Adam Johnson (piano)
rec. 2017, South Creake, UK
GRAND PIANO GP780 [80:17]

Before the arrival of this disk I had just one other CD of Toivo Kuula‘s music - Dutton’s excellent recording of his orchestral music and songs, enthusiastically reviewed by Rob Barnett. I therefore welcomed the opportunity to listen to this very well filled CD. It contains his entire oeuvre for piano, which was far from being his main musical activity. He is, in fact, best known for his vocal and choral output. Unfortunately, he died at the age of thirty-five from wounds sustained in a shooting incident following a political quarrel, so hardly had the time to develop fully as a composer.

He studied under Sibelius from 1906 to 1908 and, as far the piano was concerned, he was entirely self-taught, an astonishing accomplishment which was not without its problems, as evinced by his saying “I will whip that piano until I succeed”.

Born in Finland, he died there as the country was on the brink of establishing its independence from Russia – it had been a Russian Grand Duchy. He was particularly active as a Fennoman, a group of Finnish Nationalists devoted to establishing the Finnish language as co-equal with Swedish, which was spoken in Finland by the majority. The booklet has a striking photo of him on its back cover, and it strongly reminds me of one of Sibelius at the same sort of age.

Much of his piano music still only exists in unclear manuscript, and a significant proportion of the music presented here is played from these. In fact, the pianist, Adam Johnson spent a year researching the source.

In his introductory contribution to the booklet notes, Mr.Johnson points out that Kuula's harmony is coloured by an early Debussian palette together with the darker late-Romantic progressions of Wagner. Some of the piano writing is highly virtuosic.

I have gradually become more and more appreciative of the music, particularly the Six Piano Pieces Op.26. The fourth of these, a Nocturne formerly known as ‘Christmas Night’, is particularly impressive, and although no description of its musical imagery is given, I can easily convince myself that it represents the slowly increasing clangour of Church Bells as the midnight hour approaches. The final piece of the set is simply entitled ‘Funeral March’, and was composed to honour a churchman who had been important to Kuula in his early years. It is a sonorous and impressive, its motto theme rising to forte within one minute, then continuing in a solemn quietness, with its theme reappearing a couple of minutes before the end, briefly rising to a thunderous climax before ending quietly by descending to the depths.

Kuula composed many songs, some for solo voice and others for chorus, and he transcribed some of them for solo piano, three of which appear here. The second, a Barcarolle, has what is probably the most instantly memorable tune on the disk.

Having said that, the Häämarssi I (No.2 of Piano Pieces Op.3b) is widely used in Finland today as a Wedding March, and it has a solemn memorability.

The disk starts with the Satukuvia (Folk-Tale Pictures) of 1912, each piece of which has its origin in a folk-tale. As might be expected, they are melodic in attempting to use piano music to describe firstly a young hare leaving the burrow for the first time, then the plains of Ostrobothnia and finally a lily-of-the-valley on a lonely rocky island. Kuula is neither more nor less successful than others would have been in trying to describe such abstract images, which have no obvious natural sounds associated with them. They can be listened to and enjoyed for their music alone.

Apart from a short introduction by the pianist, the informative booklet notes, in English and Finnish, are written by Tero Tommila, of the Toivo Kuula Society, and his references to the pieces are notated by the CD track numbers. The recording is first-rate, with the lower reaches of the keyboard being presented vividly and the top notes with a pleasing ‘ping’. The virtuoso pianist Adam Johnson is fully equal to the range of the music and I have enjoyed this CD very much; it contains a lot of memorable music, and I welcome its appearance.

Jim Westhead

Previous review: Rob Barnett


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