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Nordic Music
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 [30:52]
Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, No. 6 from Lyric Pieces, Op. 65 [6:10]
Franz BERWALD (1796-1868)
Piano Concerto in D Major [20:35]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Saul and David – Prelude to Act II [5:55]
Ana-Marija Markovina (piano)
Schleswig-Holsteinisches Sinfonieorchester/Peter Sommerer
rec. 2017/18, Alsion, Sønderborg, Denmark

This CD contains a very interesting and unusual mixture of repertory: A warhorse piano concerto, a rarely heard piano concerto, a popular solo piano piece and a prelude to an opera. The soloist here in the three works for piano is Croatian-born, German based pianist Ana-Marija Markovina, a former student of Vitaly Margulis, Anatol Ugorsky, and Paul Badura-Skoda. She has become especially well known for her performances of the keyboard works of CPE Bach, recording all his solo music on a 26-CD set for Hänssler Classics. She has also recorded the entire solo piano output of little known German composer Anton Urspruch on three discs for Hänssler and is currently involved in a project to record all the solo works of Mendelssohn. But her repertory is broad and encompasses a wide range of other major and minor composers from various periods.

Here she turns in a mostly straightforward reading of the Grieg Concerto, with tempos on the moderate to slow side. The alternate theme in the first movement is played quite slowly but also very sensitively. She offers a dramatic though slightly peculiar performance of the cadenza, as if she is probing, rather slowly, for a grandeur or depth that is not quite unearthed. Still, this movement is reasonably well played and interpreted, pointing up an epic, romantic sweep, not usually encountered in other recordings. The ensuing panel is beautifully phrased throughout, the climax very impressively executed. In the first two movements Ms. Markovina’s performances can stand comparison with many, though not the best accounts on record that I’ve heard. Her finale, however, could use a little more spirit, as it seems to bog down somewhat in places. It opens quite effectively as she presents the main theme with sufficient energy, deft accenting and well-judged dynamics but the ensuing passages leading to the middle section’s lyrical theme lack drive and vigour. The slow lyrical theme itself is sensitively phrased and the remainder of the movement goes reasonably well.

Overall, at nearly thirty-one minutes for the concerto, she has one of the most expansive performances that I know of. Julius Katchen and Sviatoslav Richter, in much older efforts, are two or three minutes faster, while Cliburn and Lugansky, certainly not known as speed demons, are brisker too. Peter Sommerer draws especially excellent playing from the Schleswig-Holstein Symphony Orchestra in all three movements. Thus, this is a mostly respectable performance, not among the best, but very detailed and generally well-played.

The one item here that I think makes this CD rather special is the fine performance of the rarely encountered 1855 Berwald Piano Concerto. I first became familiar with this late Romantic concerto by this little known Swedish composer about forty years ago from Michael Ponti’s late-1970s performance on a Vox/Turnabout LP; one of very few recordings of the work over the years. This is a concerto thoroughly dominated by the piano – other than the opening fifteen seconds or so, the piano plays almost nonstop throughout. According to the informative album notes by Dr. Helmut Reuter, the concerto, despite sounding relatively easy, is quite challenging for the soloist. It may be more difficult than the Grieg, which is generally viewed as very manageable for the average virtuoso. But, alas, the Berwald is not quite at the level of the Grieg in the quality of its music. The first two movements feature fine, if not genuinely masterful or memorable music, but the finale is a true gem, making this work worth hearing. I’ve heard more than a few better known concertos not as compelling as this one. Ana-Marija Markovina delivers an excellent performance that I hope will draw some attention to this neglected work. Again, her tempos are on the moderate to slow side, but I have absolutely no complaints this time. The orchestra also turns in a splendid performance under conductor Sommerer.

Ms. Markovina delivers a lively and appropriately light performance of one of Grieg’s most popular lyric pieces – Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. The conductor, in what you might call his encore piece here, turns in a fine reading of the Saul and David Prelude to Act II. The orchestra effectively conveys the contrasting sides of the work, both its stately grandeur and its elegant introspection. Hänssler Classics captures all the performances with vivid, well balanced sound reproduction. Berwald’s date of birth is correctly listed as 1796 on the back cover but in the album notes it is given as 1786. In sum, you can find better performances of the Grieg but the Berwald concerto and the other items on the disc make this an attractive offer.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Robert Beattie

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