LAURA NETZEL (1839-1927); SVEN-DAVID SANDSTRÖM (b.1942); ANDREA TARRODI (b.1981): Piano Concertos., Peter Friis Johansson, piano: Göteborgs Symfoniker, Ryan Bancroft.
Catalogue Number: 11Y020
Description: Three superb, strongly contrasted Swedish concerti, totally accessible each in its own way and firmly grounded in tonality (or in Sandström's case, making liberal and supremely effective use of it in his undefinable personal idiom). Tarrodi’s First Piano Concerto joins the impressive Symphony and other orchestral works that we offered in September (09Y006) in confirming her as a composer of great imagination, with a powerful sense of drama and musical imagery. Like the symphony, "Stellar Clouds" takes its quasi-programmatic impetus from nature's most awe-inspiring phenomena; in this case those cosmology. Tarrodi’s characteristic post-minimalistic rippling patterns and driving ostinati are put to good use in depicting the infinite spaces, mystery, and unimaginable violence of the cosmos. Following a slowly pulsating orchestral introduction, the void vibrating and convulsing as it prepares to give birth to unimaginable energy, the piano enters with accumulating, swirling gestures, as of coalescing atoms. Textures grow exponentially denser, and, convulsively, stars are formed. In one of the highly effective shifts of perspective that are one of the work’s most striking features, the following movement, "Constellations" views these stellar conflagrations at infinite distance as the twinkling lights of the night sky, gradually zooming back in to suggest the true massiveness of the distant stellar objects. The fourth movement bears the title "Cosmic Nursery" and is dedicated to the composer’s and the pianist's infant children. It has the character of a lullaby, decorated with the scintillations of the stars. Its thematic motif carries over into the next movement, "Hypernova", as we are transported through telescoped time from the birth of stars to their convulsively explosive death. The music hurtles on waves of percussion-battered ostinati toward the cataclysm, which rears up in towering chords. Another dramatic shift of focus etches these same cosmic conflagrations against the darkling empyrean, and ushers in the extended cadenza (a request of the pianist, it can be extracted for solo performance, where its coruscating ripples and whorls will remind listeners of Ravel's "Ondine"). The final "Recapitulation" hurls us back to the close-up view of the churning fiery mælstrom, then in an instant flings us back to the infinitely distant perspective, to end the work in calm, static contemplation. Sandström's stunningly original work was written for Johansson, two years before the composer’s death. Sandström stated his intention of avoiding traditional concerto form, with its division into internally consistent movements, and instead produced five independent pieces, each with a dizzying array of kaleidoscopic changes of mood and texture. This allowed him, for one thing, to explore one of his most characteristic compositional devices, that of resolving a passage of unsettling, even disturbing, tension and intensity, or driven, motoric obsessiveness, into one of ravishing diatonic beauty, with the expectation-annihilating abruptness of a cinematic jump-cut. The first, and longest, piece epitomises this unconventional approach; it begins with a dramatic flourish, which immediately gives way to piano arabesques and rapidly intensifying stabbing string chords which announce a jumpy climax full of off-beat accents. Pensive, hesitant dialogues between soloist and orchestra follow, harmonically stable for a while, and we seem to be approaching a tonal resolution as little gestures teasingly suggest the imminent arrival of a grandly Romantic peroration - which instead turns out to be the return of the jittery, explosively syncopated material from the beginning, after which the movement dies away in desolate gong-strokes from the piano. The second movement traverses a glittering, static landscape, which after a brief climactic flurry opens on to a deceptively warm vista which nevertheless plays host to sinister subterranean activity. As with Tarrodi, Johansson requested a cadenza that could be performed as a solo piece, and Sandström obliged - after a fashion - with what begins as a breezy, neo-romantic specimen of such a thing. However, after a minute, the orchestra returns, but only with a hazy background susurration apart from a brief woodwind phrase around the mid-point of the movement, which otherwise continues as a rich, Romantic solo piece, which could be performed as such with the minimum of modification. A challenge to the performer? The unruly stabbing exchanges between soloist and orchestra from Piece I are recalled in the brief Fourth, which suddenly cadences onto a grand chord to begin the fifth piece. The composer said that he was "eager to entertain and constantly to surprise listeners, and I want to offer them experiences of beauty, warmth and intimacy" and it turns out that this was the path followed by this mercurial, kaleidoscopic piece all along, as this gloriously sumptuous resolution to the work’s journey proves. Even when piano and orchestra start throwing huge syncopated chords at one another it now sounds like a glimpse of a boisterous, joyous sport of giants rather than a battle. As the music ascends to the sun-drenched heights Sandström clearly achieves his longing "…for something that can be found high up, perhaps a heavenly ascension", as he expressed it. Around the turn of the 20th century, Netzel was one of Sweden’s most internationally recognised and most frequently performed composers, throughout Europe. As a woman composer, and moreover one who refused to restrict herself to songs and salon pieces, she encountered some resistance to her work in Sweden, and critics - and, regrettably, some fellow composers - were disparaging of her predilection for French influences (she had studied with Widor). Nevertheless, she produced a significant body of work, some of which is now lost, though there is an effort underway to revive her music. The ambitious Piano Concerto, at just shy of half an hour her largest work, is such a case. The concerto is a very fine specimen of the grand Romantic tradition at its best, in a sumptuous chromatic vocabulary, with an exuberant, full-blooded piano part full of drama and passion. The influence of Saint-Saëns is very apparent, and of other models, especially Liszt and Brahms. The first movement is bold and dramatic; the second lyrical and passionate, full of cascading roulades of piano figuration; and the finale, with its light, lively exuberance, sounds very French indeed. The work exists in several manuscript versions, and apparently required fairly extensive editing to produce a performing edition; the score breaks off abruptly in the finale, and Johansson plays his own completion here, using a theme from the first movement as a final climactic statement and giving the concerto a cyclic shape, which is convincing and in keeping with the composer’s style and influences.