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Selim PALMGREN (1878-1951)
Complete Piano Works 1
Souvenir de Chopin SP.274 (1892) [1:41]
Intermezzo SP.110 (1895) [0:53]
Aria SP.9 (1904) [3:41]
Three Pieces Op.1 (1896-8) [6:00]
3 Klaverstycken Op.2 (c.1898) [5:49]
Tuutulaulu - cradle song (arr. From Choral piece) SP.312 (1903) [3:13]
Syysproloogi – Autumn prologue SP.288 (1926 or earlier) [3:48]
Studie SP.281 (1906) [1:02]
Finnische Lyrik: 12 Klavierstücke Op.22 (1908 or earlier) [23:57]
Piano Sonata in D minor Op.11 (1901) [16:06]
Jouni Somero (piano)
Rec. 2020, Kuusaa Hall, Kuusankoski, Finland
Booklet notes in English and German

Finnish pianist Jouni Somero has amassed a large discography of often unsung composers – Sergei Bortkiewicz, Hans Seeling and Benjamin Godard are among the many rarities he has explored and there are discs of Finnish piano music including the complete piano music of Toivo Kuula. Perhaps it is not surprising then that Grand Piano have chosen him to record the complete piano music of Finnish composer Selim Palmgren, a project that will include many world premieres and works without opus number or still in manuscript. Selim Palmgren isn't hugely familiar nowadays outside of Finland but his music was performed by many famous musicians and his piano works attracted some great names; Ignaz Friedman was an early champion of the second concerto and arranged the orchestral part for piano whilst both Myra Hess and Benno Moiseiwitsch played and recorded his music. Nowadays little is heard beyond his brief étude En route or May night but he composed over 300 works for the piano. After initial piano lessons with his sister Alie, a pupil of Liszt, he went on to study under Leschetizky pupil Henryk Melcer (1869-1928) and Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924); anyone familiar with his marvellous piano concertos, especially the glorious second, the River, will know that Palmgren was a gifted writer for the instrument and that is evident even from the earliest works recorded here; his attractive little salon waltz Souvenir de Chopin was written when he was just 14. It is notable that Palmgren was often called the Scandanavian Chopin and he was a great admirer of the Polish composer, even taking time to place flowers on Chopin's grave in Paris as he stopped off on his way to America.

The works that follow this take us through his teens and up to his twentieth year and include his first published collections, opp.1 and 2, each containing three pieces. The Prelude that opens this set already has a clear and imaginative use of harmony; it reminded me a little of the mournful opening of Grieg's Ballade op.24 with its series of descending chords. The elegiac beauty of Illusion would not be out of place among Grieg's Lyric Pieces and indeed as we can amply hear, Palmgren was a master of the miniature; his Finnische Lyrik and other sets to appear on later volumes will I think confirm this. A cascading etude, dedicated to his teacher Melcer, completes the set as it stands here though there is another piece, a Valse-caprice, that was published separately as op.1 no.4 in the same year (not recorded on this volume). I enjoyed the berceuse that opens his op.2 but would question its lack of the essential lilt and melody to soothe a little one to sleep. Palmgren perfectly captures the melancholy of the central Élégie with clever use of suspension and chromatic harmony. His Valse-intermezzo, like the brief march-like dance that is the first of his many intermezzi (SP.110), is a genial piece that is over almost before it has begun.

Somero includes Palmgren's solo piano arrangement of his own Cradle song, Tuutulaulu which seems to be a little four-square as played here. It is not helped by the block chordal style which, while it sounds atmospheric sung by a choir, needs more sympathetic playing than I am hearing. This and the Aria that the booklet's author Joel Valkila correctly suggests would fit alongside the slower numbers of Granados' Spanish dances, date from roughly the same time as Palmgren's only extant Piano Sonata. This is a big-boned, granite-edged piece, its first movement largely based around the grand triplet chords that begin it like some melodramatic fanfare, its second movement working its way from its grave whole tone opening to huge climaxes and its finale with its rugged, driven first subject and passionate second theme that seems to speak of vast mountain ranges. In keeping with the composer's penchant for miniatures it comes in at just over a quarter of an hour including repeats. I think I just prefer Henri Sigfridsson's performance on Ondine (ODE11922 review). He has a little more rhythmic dash and is more responsive to the tempi though Somero is not far behind; I do wonder if some of Somero's is recorded in longer chunks with less editing as I feel I am detecting some little finger slips on a couple of occasions though nothing detrimental to the performance.

The longest item on the disc is the collection of Finnish Lyrics that Palmgren wrote around the time he had settled in Berlin. It comprises 12 short pieces evoking Finnish rural life and its folk-tunes. Even the third piece Paganini, a short etude, which Valkila considers the outsider of the set. seems to have a folkiness to its constant short phrases. There are dances, the opening Pastorale, the rambunctious Finnish Polska and the Waltz from Österbotten, and in Sinikellot, bell flowers with its evocation of gentle chimes there is an early example of Palmgren's nod to impressionism and more than a hint of chinoiserie. We can also find bluff good humour, directly in Humor, the fourth of the set with its alternating duple/triple time bars and off-the-beat accompaniment and indirectly in Serenade with its limping 5/4 rhythm and sinister baritone melody – one wonders who is being serenaded and by whom? This serenade and the heartfelt Solitary song, no.11 of the set, are just two of the gems of this collection.

There is some sensitive playing here, with illusion being of note in this respect. If there is a certain solidity to the chordal writing of Tuutulaulu or the Autumnal Prelude I feel that is more to do with the writing than the playing. Volume two, containing the big set of 24 Preludes op.17 is already on the horizon and if the delights of this first outing are anything to go by it will be an enjoyable journey as Palmgren's unsung piano music finally sees the light of day.

Rob Challinor

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