rautavaara martinu bis

Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016)
Piano Concerto No. 3 ‘Gift of Dreams’ (1998)
Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Piano Concerto No. 3 (1947-48)
Olli Mustonen (piano)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Dalia Stasevska
rec. 2022, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
BIS BIS-2532 SACD [56]

Here is a most unusual coupling of twentieth-century piano concertos that should gain new fans of both composers.  I was unacquainted with the Rautavaara work, while I hadn’t been overly enthusiastic in my previous encounter with the Martinů (review). The performances on this new disc have left a very positive impression on me and I hope there is more to come by these forces.

Rautavaara composed his Third Piano Concerto on a commission from Vladimir Ashkenazy, who insisted that the pianist be able to both play the solo and conduct the orchestra.  Ashkenazy recorded the work with the Helsinki Philharmonic, which could be deemed authoritative.  I have heard only excerpts of his performance that clearly lives up to the concerto’s subtitle, “Gift of Dreams.”  Indeed, it is rather dreamy and could do with a shot of adrenalin.  Laura Mikkola also recorded it with the Netherlands Radio Symphony under Eri Klas for Naxos and her livelier account has the logical coupling of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The Piano Concerto No. 3, though, is unlike any such work of the past century I have heard.  Jean-Pascal Vachon, in the booklet notes, sees similarities with Debussy or Bartók in the work.  The meditative first movement reminds me a bit of Debussy in its impressionism, but not Bartók, whereas the finale that brings the work to life is redolent of Ravel in its bluesy passages.  There are places that the earlier composer’s Concerto in G Major comes to mind, even though Rautavaara’s sonority is much denser.  However, the very ending is unique in the way it just dies away transforming what would seem to be a major chord into the minor in the strings by not being obvious as a component of the chord.  It is really haunting.  As good as Ashkenazy and Mikkola seem to be, Olli Mustonen with his bright tone clarifies the music to a greater degree and the Lahti Orchestra under Dalia Stasevska are equal partners.  The concerto is not your usual virtuosic showpiece, but more like a tone poem with the piano as primus inter pares.  This recording further scores with BIS’s outstandingly vivid sound.  I have generally preferred Rautavaara’s choral music, especially such a cappella works as Vigilia, to his orchestral ones.  This piano concerto is an exception and I look forward to hearing his other pieces in the genre.

I have always had great admiration for Martinů’s concertos, on the other hand, but found his piano concertos less appealing than those for violin and cello, as well as his chamber concertos.  This thrilling new account of the Third Piano Concerto has substantially revised my opinion.  The concerto was dedicated to Rudolf Firkušný, who premiered it with the Dallas Symphony in 1949.  The first movement is quite reminiscent structurally of Brahms, who “clearly served as a model,” according to Vachon, and leads off with a declamatory theme by the orchestra.  The piano enters around the 1:30 mark with the main theme accompanied by woodwinds.  Indeed, there are many passages in both the piano part and that of the orchestra which reminded me of Brahms, particularly his Second Piano Concerto.  The second movement darkens in atmosphere with the piano’s wistful melody.  While Brahms is still present in this movement in the syncopated piano writing, it also contains Czech passages recalling the music of Dvořák.  A nice horn part launches the finale with its jolly tune, first on the woodwinds and then the piano.  This is very rhythmic and infectious and certainly Czech-sounding.  A piano solo from 6:00 to 7:29 serves as a sort of cadenza before the work concludes in high spirits on a loud chord by piano and orchestra.  This is mature Martinů and could not have been composed by anyone else, even with the influences I have noted.  The artists here really capture the essence of the concerto and invite the listener to hear it all over again.

As there are other choices on disc for these works, the listener will have to decide which couplings are preferred.  I find the present programme most appealing and quite appropriate.  BIS has contributed their usual top-quality product.  I listened to the SACD on my regular stereo system, but can imagine that the recording is even more outstanding on a super audio setup.  BIS is likewise to be applauded for their non-plastic packaging, though I found it more difficult than usual to extract the disc from its sleeve.  I noticed on some of their earlier products that a notch in the sleeve was helpful in this regard.  

Leslie Wright

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