Grieg, Schumann: Piano concertos - Mertanen
Alba Records ABCD 356
Classical - Orchestral
Grieg: Piano concerto
Schumann: Piano concerto
Janne Mertanen (piano)
Gävle Symphony Orchestra
Hannu Koivula (conductor)
Review by John Miller - July 24, 2014
A problem with the huge popularity of these two A minor piano concertos is that listeners can become jaded with repetition, and this can also happen to conductors, orchestras and soloists alike. Well, a young prize-winning Finnish soloist, who is rapidly gaining his international reputation, joined with a provincial Swedish orchestra from Gävle and Finnish conductor Hannu Koivula to make glorious magic with the Grieg and Schumann concertos.
Gävle is a seaport on the Gulf of Bothnia about 200km north of Stockholm. Its symphony orchestra was founded in 1912 and is thus one of the oldest in Sweden. Recent principal conductors have been Hannu Koivula, 1991-1996, Carlos Spierer, 1997-2000, Petri Sakari, 2000-2006, Robin Ticciati, 2006-2009, Jaime Martín, 2013-present. Orchestra members come from Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Holland, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, USA - and there are some local musicians.
The Gävle Symphony's oval Concert Hall, seating 819, has one of the best acoustics in Sweden, and can adapt them to suit the music. It is frequently used for making recordings, not just those by the resident orchestra. In this case, Simon Fox-Gál produced, edited and engineered for Alba, SA-CD mixes being made by Classic Sound Limited, London. This is a fine example of a natural concert capture, making use of a well-controlled warmly reticent acoustic and providing a great degree of transparency, revealing many orchestral touches which previously might have gone astray in some of the competing CDs.
The orchestra has 50-60 members, and the somewhat lower number of strings allows the woodwind to blend more clearly into the whole orchestra sound than usual. This is a bonus, because it allows the dialogues between piano and woodwind in both concertos to make their mark. The piano too is not excessively spotlighted, so that its tone develops properly, allowing Mertanen's full dynamic range to come though without compression. The Gävle Symphony's playing is highly polished and sounds as if long takes were used. Their wind and brass soloists and also the resinous richness of their cello section are highly commendable.
Bryce Morrison (one of the world's leading authorities on piano performance) has penned for the booklet a perceptive history of both piano concertos (Schumann's from 1841-1885 and Grieg's of 1868). He remarks on Grieg's many emulations of Schumann's design and the great influence of Liszt on Grieg, whose concerto is bursting with drama and Nordic personality. Schumann's concerto, however, is almost monothematic, so similar are his melodies. Unusually for a booklet, Bryce Morrison celebrates the performances on this disc "as filled by a sense of wonder, of first love" and this was exactly my own feeling from the first bars onward, remembering my sheer delight on first hearing these two concertos.
Grieg's concerto's first and last movements were constructed with greatly contrasted sections, which, under many conductors, are rather clumsily or abruptly approached, suggesting supposed inexperience of Grieg in this early work. A great virtue of Koivula and Mertanen's approach, immersed in Romanticism, is that each movement is seen as whole, flowing with seeming inevitability on its course.
This is achieved in the first movement with great skill by using beautifully considered and skilfully rendered cadences at the end of each section and applying gentle rubatos and appropriate dynamics to transit into the next. Grieg's seemingly patchy development section is held together by building the climaxes with strong accents and flexible rhythms (a Nordic touch), and ends with a melting transition into the recapitulation where the first subject is given a new rhythmic lift, and the second subject returns even more effortlessly in its emotional mien. Mertanen also knows how to deal with the sectionalism of the cadenza; his approach is fluent and musing until it encounters those great low-bass oceanic waves of octave scales which follow each assertive proclamation of the first subject. At the end of the highly emotional cadenza, the subdued orchestra sounds bemused or awed, but they leap willingly into their animated, folksy coda.
I have pages of notes for the last two movements also, recording their many felicities. One particular irritation I usually find in performances is the stolid, mensurate rendition of the famous "big tune" at the end of the last movement. Koivula and the Gävle orchestra sing it like a proud anthem, swelling and moving along - not pompous but passionate.
Schumann's concerto is given similar refreshment and also played with a sense of discovery. Mertanen is very clear in a difference in approach from the drama of Grieg to the deep-thinking Schumann. With Schumann, performers must deal with the composer's "characters" Florestan and Eusebius, representing the duality of his personality. Eusebius depicts the dreamer in Schumann while Florestan represents his passionate side.
After its frisky opening, featuring finely controlled rubato without disturbing the time signature, Koivula and Mertanen respect the symphonic nature of the first movement in its poetic warmth. Its playful exchanges of piano and orchestra seem in Mertanen's view to be like a narrative, perhaps of domestic character. The uniquely fragile and fragrant second movement holds a question and answer session, with the strings playing coyly but smilingly and Mertanen responds soothingly with some gorgeous soft playing. There is a great deal of tenderness here, holding the listening mind enthralled. In contrast, a vivid, energetic finale has uplifting rhythms and plenty of well-articulated, unforced piano virtuosity.
While there are now SA-CDs of some of the most prestigious recordings of the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos (e.g. Richter, Lupu, Lupatti, Kovacevich), for an excellently recorded performance which seems "live" and for the warmth and spontaneity of Mertanen and his orchestra, this Alba album could even be considered as a first choice for many. Even collectors with stacks of recordings of these beloved concerti should listen to this one. I was totally captivated by it, renewed and reminded of the thrill of my first hearing. Here, these two concertos are not to be viewed as war horses but healthy young stallions fresh out of their stables!
Completely engaging from first to last bars. Highly recommended.
Koivula and Mertanen and Alba chose to follow the usual practise of placing the despite the obvious influences
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