Classical CD Reviews

BORTKIEWICZ: Piano Works, Volumes 8 – 9 = Impressions; Ein Roman fuer Klavier; Trois Morceaux; Two pieces; Kindheit – Jouni Somero, p. – FC Records (2 CDs)

The relatively unknown piano scores of Sergei Bortkiewicz in these volumes bespeak debts to the romantics Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and Grieg.

Published on February 4, 2013

BORTKIEWICZ: Piano  Works, Volumes 8 – 9 = Impressions; Ein Roman fuer Klavier; Trois Morceaux; Two pieces; Kindheit – Jouni Somero, p. – FC Records (2 CDs)

BORTKIEWICZ: Piano  Works, Volumes 8 – 9 = Impressions, Op. 4; Ein Roman fuer Klavier, Op. 35; Trois Morceaux, Op. 6; Two pieces; Kindheit, Op. 39 – Jouni Somero, piano – FC Records FCRCD-9742 (2 CDs) 52:23; 38:18 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Ukrainian composer Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) has a true disciple in Finnish virtuoso Jouni Somero (b. 1963), who plies the Steinway D (rec. 22-23 November 2011) with both authority and poetic feeling. After having completed his studies at the Leipzig conservatory in 1902, Bortkiewicz soon married in 1904 and turned to serious composition in a manner reminiscent of Schumann’s “song year.” His Impressions, Op. 4 (1905, written in Berlin) each bear a title in French, a series of seven character pieces that, like the No. 5 Bergers et Bergeres, ring with a vitality that occasionally echo a Brahms Hungarian dance.  Au clair de lune must nod to Debussy, of course, but it has serenely folkish melodic contour that could – despite the harmonic innovations – be attributed to Schubert, Anton Rubinstein or Sinding’s Rustle of Spring. The little Etude d’oiseaux plays like a staccato etude by way of Anton Rubinstein, Liszt, and likely Ravel. The final selection of the set, Bal masque, artfully combines arpeggios with chordal progressions that remind us of similar character pieces by Tchaikovsky in his The Seasons. Only the title recalls Schumann’s penchant for carnivals and a cast of colorful personalities.

Ein Roman fuer Klavier dates from 1928 and reveals a more audacious harmonic style, here set as a suite of eight pieces bearing German titles. Begegnung (Encounter) rather gallops in syncopated chords that recall Scriabin and Chopin, but more obsessive and predictably percussive. Plauderei (Romantic banter) borrows from Schumann and Liadov, a romantically melodic piece with modest contrapuntal aspirations.  Scriabin’s nocturne style infiltrates Erwachende Liebe (Awakening Love), which takes its left hand from Chopin’s primer. More energy in the Schumann or Chopin style informs Auf dem Ball, a hearty waltz-mazurka in broken accents.  Enttaeuschung (Disappointment) engages in passing dissonances and plodding introspection, rather a dirge for lost love, mostly in parlando style. Vorwurfe (Accusations) resonates with Chopin’s D Minor Prelude, tremolandi and swirling passions in turbulent fury. We next read A Letter (Ein Briefe) likely penned by an amorous Scriabin, which offers sweet consolations. Finally, Hoehchstes Glueck concludes in high spirits, since the last piece must have proffered romantic trysts that echo the Scriabin D-sharp Etude’s throes of mighty Wagnerian passion.

Of the Trois Morceaux (1906) Somero plays the latter two, Valse Triste and Etude. The former seems an amalgam of Chopin and Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse, part waltz-mazurka and illumined reverie. Bortkiewicz combines the two impulses in lyrical counterpoint, the rising melody reminiscent of one of Liszt’s liebestraume.  The heavy-footed Etude frolics and cascades, alternately, moving to another of Bortkiewicz’s nocturne melodies, singing like Chopin or Tchaikovsky.

The 1930 14-movement Kindheit (Childhood) takes its rubric (a la Schumann) directly from the first of a trilogy of novels by Leo Tolstoy, a combination of character pieces and loose narrative. The second piece, Maman, offers a simple Russian song in the manner of Tchaikovsky. Der Vater offers a companion piece more assertive but just as folkish. Grisha, der wandernde Moench invokes a sense of plainchant to describe this monkish character. A childlike song depicts Katienka and Liubotschka. Kindheit employs a music-box sonority to invoke the spirit of the child in us, its middle section clearly nostalgic. Natalia Sawischna (Die Amme) – portrays a reliable, kindly nurse from the Tolstoy narrative, the music pure Tchaikovsky. Die Jagd rings with hunting calls from Schumann, especially from his own Waldszenen, though the harmony wanders into Mussorgsky. Mendelssohn supplies the quicksilver filigree for Robinson-Spiele. Vielleicht erste Liebe (Perhaps first love) has a tentative, Scriabin or Faure quality, plaintive and modal. Die Gaeste kommen offers robust expectation of company’s arriving to party. Quadrille and Mazurka tell us what the guests danced after they had arrived, the figures much in the style of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. And with Grieg in mind we conclude with Der Tod der Mutter, certainly obligated to Ase’s Death from Peer Gynt, the chromatic line caressed by a sweet chorale.

—Gary Lemco




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