SANDSTRÖM:  Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1990).
HAMMERETH:  Piano Concerto No. 1 (1989/90).
Bengt-Ake Lundin, pianist; Gävle Symphony Orch/Göran W. Nilson, cond.

CAPRICE CP 21608 (F) (DDD) TT:  61:16
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RAUTAVAARA:  Piano Concerto No. 3 "Gift of Dreams."  Autumn Gardens.  
Helsinki Philharmonic Orch; Vladimir Ashkenazy, pianist-conductor

ONDINE ODE 950  (F) (DDD) TT: 67:45
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Many years ago the BBC produced a "documentary"  called The Strange Case of Piotr Zak.  Six well-known music critics were invited into BBC studios to evaluate music of "an exciting  new, imaginative, young Polish composer" named Piotr Zak. Zak's "music" was included on the BBC transcription; this is what the critics had listened to attentively before giving  their "reviews."  Four critics said the "music" had no merit whatsoever and was worthless.  But two thought the music was stimulating, imaginative and very much worth listening to. Then  BBC officials revealed  that "Piotr Zak" didn't exist. The "music" they heard was the result of several non-musical stage-hands going onstage after a concert, picking up various instruments,  pounding on them, blowing into them, producing some kind of sound recorded by BBC engineers who did some editing to join the "music" together.    The two "critics" who approved of Zak's "music" were well-known—and their enthusiasm about what they heard makes one wonder about  validity of critics' opinions—including, of course, my own! For more on the fictional Piotr Zak, visit this site: http://piotr-zak.wikiverse.org

I couldn't help but be reminded of "Piotr Zak" listening to both of these new CDs. The Caprice CD contains two fairly recent piano concertos by leading Swedish composers. Program  notes (in Swedish and English) are by Hans-Gunnar Peterson overstating the obvious. Commenting on the Hammerth concerto, he states..."the orchestra is often the quieter part, the orchestral power and brilliance instead being given to the soloist...."  Notes for the Sven-David Sandstr–m (b. 1942) concerto state, "sometimes the solo piano plays together with the soft, mild voices in the orchestra, often represented by strings and woodwinds, and sometimes with the harder voices of the brass and percussion."  It also is stated  the soloist, Bengt-‰ke Lundin, "has taken the work to a deeper level by concentrating on its technical aspects....interpreting it...with more feeling and intuition." I would think one would get to a "deeper level" by concentrating on musical/philosophical aspects rather than the "technical" side, but that is another matter. The concerto, composed in 1990,  begins with innocuous arpeggios from the soloist in a most unimaginative way, rather like background sounds for a cocktail party. Throughout its 23:33 duration there are loud percussive outbursts separating doodling tranquil episodes, with a final section marked by somewhat tricky syncopation.  

Of considerable more, although still limited, interest is the longer (37:42) Piano Concerto No.1 by Johan Hammerth (b. 1953) commissioned by pianist Lundin, dedicated to Sven-David Sandstr–m and premiered in 1992. This is in three movements, the first two connected. The score features  huge clusters of aggressive percussion separating banal statements from the soloist. As with the Sandstr–m concerto, we often hear arpeggios and scales from the soloist. The concerto ends quietly with a statement from the solo piano.

Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1998 for Vladimir Ashkenazy keeping in mind that the pianist/conductor wished to conduct the work from the keyboard. The 28-minute "concerto" is subtitled "Gift of Dreams," with a motif that first appeared in one of the composer's songs in 1978, used later  in his String Quintet. The theme appears throughout the concerto, most effectively  in the quiet, slow middle movement. In his notes Rautavaara describes "an emotional outburst," a school of dolphins "leaping in a joyous line far away across the sea," "blazing fanfares and textures that display varied traces of the 'dream motif,'" and, in the last movement, "violins ascend to the heights, supported by massive pillars of sound from the piano and gongs..."   This all suggests a vivid listening experience, which never quite comes off. There is a melancholy, brooding atmosphere throughout the concerto, many clusters of discords, particularly in the second movement, simple tunes against sustained strings. And the "blazing fanfares" and "massive pillars of sound" are tame indeed.

The title of the other work on this CD, Autumn Gardens, comes from a passage in the libretto of Rautawaara's opera The House of the Sun, "like a butterfly in the garden of black autumn..."  There are three movements:  Poetico, Tranquillo and Il Giocoso e leggiero. The composer suggests that the score grows "like an English garden," with the last movement "sort of like a sarabande in honour of the dying splendour of summer..."  A mysterious mood prevades, with moments of idyllic beauty. Often there is a Hovhaness-type meandering pace that seems to lead nowhere.

Performances on both CDs surely present the music authoritatively, and all have been very well recorded. The Ondine CD also includes a 13-minute conversation between Ashkenazy and Rautavaara that brings us nothing of importance not printed out in the CD liner notes.  Perhaps it is there to help justify a full-priced CD with a playing time that would be 54 minutes without it. 

R.E.B. (June 2000)