Palmgren Early & Middle Period Piano Pieces

Author: 
Robert Layton

Palmgren Early & Middle Period Piano Pieces

  • Illusion
  • Intermezzo
  • Sonette
  • Barcarole
  • Spring
  • Youth
  • Finnish rhythms
  • Spring, No. 1, Evening sounds
  • Spring, No. 6, Capriccietto
  • (3) Pieces
  • Snowflakes

The Finnish composer Selim Palmgren (1878-1951) occupies a very peripheral place in the record catalogues these days and his name is hardly ever encountered in the recital room. Yet at one time he cut quite a figure in Finnish music. He came into prominence just before and during the First World War with his Second Piano Concerto (The River) and his Fourth (Metamorphoses). Erik Tawaststjerna recalled conversations in his own home when he was growing up in the early 1920s: “We have Sibelius and Palmgren.... Sibelius cannot write for the piano, but take Palmgren, he is the Chopin of the North”. Well, that is perhaps putting it rather strongly! However, the Finnish public of the day undoubtedly found Palmgren’s readily accessible concertos and piano pieces, such as “May night” (Op. 27 No. 4) and “Moonlight” (Op. 54 No. 3) easier to assimilate than the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies of Sibelius. One critic even went so far as to describe some of the smaller piano pieces as “without peer in the literature of Finnish piano music” (Evert Katila, writing in 1916).
Palmgren was incidentally the second husband of Maikki Jarnefelt, Sibelius’s sister-in-law through her first marriage, and a notable interpreter of his songs – and in particular The Rapids-Shooter’s Brides – as well as of her husband’s extensive song output. Kajanus championed his concertos and indeed, such was his standing, that when Sibelius eventually turned down the invitation to teach at the newly founded Eastman School of Music in Rochester in 1921, Palmgren was invited. (His tenure was relatively short-lived as his relations with the young Howard Hanson, its first director, were uneasy.) In my youth “May night” was part of the staple diet of piano students.
The present issue encompasses his early- and middle-period piano music from “Illusion”, which comes from his first opus, of 1898, through to the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 54 of 1918. In his insert-note Kimmo Karhonen speaks of his reaching “a kind of proto-Impressionism in the pieces where he evokes impressions of nature” and the musical language has a certain simplicity of texture and pallid melancholy that is appealing. His palette is that of gouache rather than oils. Though he was a fine pianist, these miniatures do not use a particularly extensive repertory of pianistic devices (in fact it is distinctly limited) and tend to inhabit a circumscribed emotional range. Some, like the “Valse mignonne” from Op. 54, are close to gentility and even salon music.
The Japanese pianist Izumi Tateno went to Finland when he was 18 and has remained there ever since. He is a sympathetic advocate of this sensitive composer and although I would not wish to hear all these pieces straight off, they have a certain charm that is well conveyed on this rewarding disc.'

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