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Toivo KUULA (1883–1918)
Complete Works for Solo Piano
Adam Johnson (piano)
rec. 2017, The Old Chapel, Yorke Trust, South Creake, UK
GRAND PIANO GP780 [80:17]

Kuula was a student of Sibelius. Like Sibelius, he was familiar with the harmonium and was far from being a total abstainer. He died very young in a fight in a drinking house. Kuula's music has already built a slim reputation and his early death and the works he left behind are such that his works were expected to vie with those of Sibelius if only he had lived. Who knows? We can only work with what he left behind.

Kuula is otherwise known for a couple of orchestral collections (Ondine and Dutton Epoch). There are 24 solo songs, of which all but eight are on a Marco Polo disc. His most extensive (25 minutes) choral-orchestral work Orjan poika Op.14 (1910) had its place on BBC Radio 3's Through the Night (23 August 2018) with the Suomen Laula Choir and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jussi Jalas.

This piano music, with its resemblances to Debussy and Baines, rather defies the Finnish composer's image: he of the deep set brooding eyes and beetling resentful brows. There is a slowly evolving sadness in these scores but nothing to match that image.

Johnson and Toccata furnish the listener with a complete picture of his piano output. Satukuvia pianolle (Three Folk-Tale Pictures) please with their examples of cut-glass gentle, splendid racing shrapnel and a very romantic and calculated Tranquillamento. This is followed, from a decade earlier, by Three Piano Pieces which are slow in pace and almost fragile. The Festive March rumbles along in the depths: a stiff-necked strut delivered with great confidence. The charmingly named Lampaanpolska (Dance of the Sheep) seems to depict some rather sad livestock and their dance is in slow motion at first but becomes gradually more animated. Air varié in E Minor, "Variations on a Finnish Air" sounds more aptly nationalistic and rather like an anthem. Scottish Dance is sturdy and spry. It feels like an approach to popular material for an "at home" and perhaps would be easily set for cutting for pianola. The 'late' Six Piano Pieces, Op. 26 include a playful Round Dance, a lightly limned and icily calculated Pastoral Atmosphere, a smart and vigorous Dance Improvisation that ends stern and brave and a slow and strangely noble Nocturne, which seems strenuously carved out of recalcitrant material. The set ends with an angry and crestfallen Funeral March. The Two Song Transcriptions are dark with an insistent, icicle-sharp ostinato and a Barcarolle which is sorrowing, dreamy and tearful. An Old Autumn Song is dignified and slow (a common impression given off by these pieces). The recital ends with a Bachian and machine-like Invention.

The pianist, Adam Johnson writes that he ‘was introduced to the music of Toivo Kuula in 2016 when I was sent the new edition of Nocturne (or Jouluyö). I was immediately struck by the vast scope of the writing and the space. The more I was sent, the more I was then intrigued by the variety, harmony and imagination of such pieces as Satukuvia, Op. 19, and the light-hearted Schottis and Tanssi-improvisaatio. I have performed full recitals of Toivo Kuula’s works in London venues (including St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square), to delighted audiences, and I have discovered that the reaction to his music is that it is of great beauty and fascination, and stimulates a desire to hear more of Kuula’s work.’

Kuula (and Johnson) benefit from a clear and natural piano sound and an artless booklet intro by the pianist. The very full notes by Tero Tommila of the Kuula Society are also an asset to the disc. Intro and notes are in English and Finnish.

Rob Barnett

Disc contents
Satukuvia pianolle (Folk-Tale Pictures), Op. 19 (1912) [15:11] (No. 1. Andante semplice [5:33]; No. 2. Presto [4:19]; No. 3. Tranquillamento [5:14]
Three Piano Pieces, Op. 3b (1906-08) [13:05] (No. 1. Elegia (Elegy) [4:26]; No. 2. Häämarssi (Wedding March) [5:23]; No. 3. Pikku gavotti (Little Gavotte) [3:10]
Juhlamarssi (Festive March), Op. 13b (1910) [9:24]
Lampaanpolska (Dance of the Sheep) (1915) [4:14]
Air varié in E Minor, "Variations on a Finnish Air" (c. 1900) [2:12]
Schottis (Scottish Dance) (c. 1904) [3:26]
Six Piano Pieces, Op. 26 (1913–16) (No. 1. Piirileikki (Round Dance) [1:29]; No. 2. Paimentunnelma (Pastoral Atmosphere) [3:41]; No. 3. Tanssi - improvisaatio (Dance Improvisation) [2:31]; No. 4. Nocturne (formerly known as Jouluyö - ’Christmas Night’ or ‘Holy Night’) [5:27]; No. 5. Rauha (Peace) [3:49]; No. 6. Surumarssi (Funeral March) [6:22])
Two Song Transcriptions op. 37 (1917) [5:21] (Virta venhettä vie (The Current Carries the Boat), Op. 4, No. 5b (1907) [3:25]; Venelaulu (Barcarolle), Op. 21, No. 2b (1912) [1:56])
Vanha syyslaulu (An Old Autumn Song), Op. 24, No. 3b [1:39]
Invention in E Minor (c. 1905) [1:19]

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