Notes and Editorial Reviews
Janne Mertanen (pn); Hannu Koivula, cond; Gävle SO
ALBA 356 (61:10)
Finnish pianist Janne Mertanen has established a reputation over the past 20 years or so as a sensitive and capable musician with a special knack for standard Romantic repertoire, particularly Chopin, of which he has released half a dozen critically acclaimed discs. On his latest recording, he offers two cornerstones of the
Romantic piano concerto literature. His interpretation of Grieg’s Piano Concerto is genuinely first-rate. And Mertanen’s Schumann, though somewhat less arresting, is quite a fine performance. Coupled with a rich yet clear sound quality, the disc is a pleasure from start to finish.
As the disc’s annotator, Bryce Morrison, insightfully remarks, both concertos have been so frequently programmed as to be “threatened by overexposure.” I would add that the concertos have been performed by such a range of distinctive musical personalities that it might seem that there is little left to be said about them. What makes Mertanen’s Grieg so compelling is not that he does anything unprecedented with it. His tempos, rubato, and dynamics are all within standard range. But his interpretative choices are emphatic and confident; one gets the sense that he has a precise, personal vision of the Grieg. As such, it will inherently diverge at certain points from listeners’ favorite recordings. But I anticipate that such divergences will spark interest rather than dismay.
Whereas most pianists treat the Grieg’s opening measures with unremitting bravado, Mertanen makes a marked decrescendo between the final two chords, creating a legato line and preparing for the expressive first theme, which both orchestra and soloist play with precise, clipped phrasing and rich coloration. I prefer Dinu Lipatti’s faster tempo and wider dynamic range in the puckish
episode that follows, but Mertanen’s articulation in this section is impressively pearly. Mertanen furthermore has an unusually orchestral sense of the piano part throughout the first movement, often treating the left hand accompaniment as independently expressive. And he varies his interpretation of the musical material when it is recapitulated. Mertanen’s cadenza begins slightly slower than many pianists’, allowing for a greater buildup to the main theme’s peroration. The trade-off is that the initial moments of the cadenza lack the shimmer that is so pleasing in Moiseiwitch’s performance.
The orchestral statement of the second movement’s theme is extraordinarily nuanced and emotionally gripping under Hannu Koivula’s direction. The result is that the piano’s statement of the theme is somewhat less compelling; it simply cannot match the orchestra in timbral variety and cannot sustain the luxurious legato of the strings. Mertanen’s rubato is expressive and subtle, however, and his tone is consistently warm.
The third movement is well accented and just fast enough to sound pressed but not rushed. Moiseiwitsch has a more militant approach, with sudden jolts of volume; Mertenen maintains a more consistent march. The lyrical second theme is effusive without becoming sentimental, and benefits from Mertanen’s independent treatment of its chordal accompaniment. The orchestral tutti are impressively imposing. Indeed, the piano is occasionally overbalanced in the concerto’s last pages, though its final scale is clear and brilliant and it emerges as the dominant voice in the last chords.
If Mertanen’s Schumann is less impressive than his Grieg, it is simply because his personal stamp on it is less apparent. There are fewer moments of boldness and of distinctive nuance. But the performance is musical and refined, and it is unimpeachably proficient. One might say that whereas Myra Hess truly owns the Schumann Concerto, Mertanen plays it very well. His presentation of the main theme is sensitive and somber, and its C-Major restatement is achingly poignant. The passages of exchange between oboe and piano come across as a spontaneous dialogue rather than a direct imitation, with admirable shaping of the melodic line. But whereas the piano is the indisputable protagonist in Hess’s performance, Mertanen treats the concerto more as an ensemble piece. Hess’s opening flourish is a bolder announcement than Mertanen’s, and her octaves before the first orchestral tutti are more assertive, standing out from the orchestral texture and arresting the listener’s attention. But Mertanen brings more emotional weight to the cadenza than does Hess, who emphasizes its counterpoint and momentum.
Mertanen’s approach to the second movement is playful and youthful, with a pleasing lilt to the held quarter notes. The cellos are almost soloistically expressive in the second theme. I find Mertanen’s playing overly subdued during this passage; while it should allow the cellos to assume the foreground, occasional surges would make for a more effective accompaniment.
Mertanen’s third movement is quite brisk, a full minute quicker than Hess’s. His tempo is similar to Argerich’s. I find this to be an effective choice; Mertanen’s eighth-note filigree is light and agile, whereas Hess and Wilhelm Kempff strike me as somewhat stolid. I am less convinced by the almost Viennese lilt Mertanen occasionally inserts into the movement’s triple meter; it comes across as uneven rather than buoyant. The entire movement, though, is played with considerable charm, and the rush of passagework that leads to the concerto’s final pages is grippingly exciting.
I recommend this disc unreservedly. I anticipate that I will return to it frequently.
FANFARE: Myron Silberstein
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano in A minor, Op. 16 by Edvard Grieg
Janne Mertanen (Piano)
Gavle Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1868/1907; Norway
Venue: Gävle Concert Hall
Length: 30 Minutes 12 Secs.
Concerto for Piano in A minor, Op. 54 by Robert Schumann
Janne Mertanen (Piano)
Written: 1841-1845; Germany
Venue: Gävle Concert Hall
Length: 30 Minutes 52 Secs.
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