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Heino Eller: Complete Piano Music, Vol. 5

Eller / Lassmann
Release Date: 03/25/2014 
Label:  Toccata Classics   Catalog #: 225   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ELLER Caprice in f#. Romanze in f#. Molto vivo in f#. Nocturne in B. Presto in f#. Lyric Waltz . Waltz in B. Small Waltz. Méditation. Preludes: Book 2. Theme and Variations in E. 13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs Sten Lassmann (pn) Read more TOCCATA (73:40)

This recording is the fifth in a projected series of seven discs surveying the entirety of Estonian composer Heino Eller’s prolific output of works for solo piano. Pianist Sten Lassmann initiated the series in 2008 as the culmination of his doctoral studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. As evidenced by his detailed program notes, Lassmann is a knowledgeable and passionate advocate of Eller’s work, which is virtually unrepresented on recording.

Dubbed “the Estonian Sibelius” by the pioneering musicologist Guido Adler, Eller’s output spans over six decades, from 1909 to his death in 1970, and includes three symphonies, five string quartets, and a large number of chamber works. A 1999 disc pairing his violin concerto with five symphonic poems reveals a luxuriantly effusive neo-Romantic composer. Eller’s nearly 200 piano works, though, spanning the full length of his career, demonstrate the extraordinary scope of Eller’s musical personality. As Lassmann indicates in the notes to the first disc of this series, he has attempted to present a diversity of styles and genres on each disc, so that each recording can offer “a distinctive portrait of Heino Eller.”

This disc presents eight miniatures, an early set of variations, and three significant works from Eller’s maturity. The latter three works could hardly be more diverse. The 13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs dates from 1940–41, during Eller’s brief tenure as chairman of the Organizing Committee of the Estonian Soviet Composers’ Union. On first hearing, the pieces are strikingly Bartókian. Lydian harmonies are prominent, as are sparse textures, drone bass, uneven phrase lengths, and rapid, motoric passages. But I do not find these pieces to be derivative. Eller supplements his modal harmonies with pastel, jazzy ninth chords. He is fond of counterpoint and clever uses of motivic material, which moves fluidly between foreground and background. The entire cycle demonstrates tremendous skill and a refined sense of craftsmanship. And the music is thoroughly engaging.

During the first third or so of his career, Eller wrote three books of piano preludes and a handful of individual preludes, for a total of 28. Readers interested in the complete cycle can find it ably performed by Vardo Rumessen on a 1998 Pro Piano disc. Lassmann’s treatment of the second book of preludes is equally appealing—slightly more impetuous and rhapsodic, though Rumessen brings an understated suaveness to these pieces that I find just as effective. The pieces themselves employ a sensual, chromatic harmonic language not far from that of Scriabin, with sudden flourishes reminiscent of Bax. Frequent use of the major triad with an added sixth brings to mind the American popular idiom. I give these comparisons only to orient the reader to Eller’s sound world; Eller’s personality shows itself to be completely unique in these preludes. And they are expertly constructed, with the thematic material always easy to follow, even in rather thick textures.

Eller’s Méditation dates from what Lassmann refers to as “a golden period in Eller’s oeuvre .” I find it to be the most compelling piece on this disc. An interval of a major second, sounded in the bass and answered by a treble motif outlining a perfect fifth, appears throughout the opening section beneath a long-phrased melancholic melody featuring descending fourths, creating a spacious, somber atmosphere. The piece becomes increasingly rhapsodic, culminating in emphatic minor-ninth chords and rapid treble arpeggios before returning to the opening material. The final moments convey a sense of despairing resignation. In this piece, Eller demonstrates an impressive ability to produce a significant emotional impact with a great economy of musical material. The nearly omnipresent opening motif never feels repetitive or unwelcome; instead, it is clearly the axis around which the drama of the piece revolves.

One danger of presenting a comprehensive survey of any composer’s works is that not all pieces are likely to represent the composer’s best artistry. In a large body of works such as Eller’s, even a comparatively small percentage of subpar compositions equates to a fairly substantial number of pieces of minimal interest. As Lassmann admits, the first five works on this disc “do not demonstrate much originality.” Written during the first few years of Eller’s career, they are largely derivative of Chopin and Schumann. They are well-crafted and attractive enough, but do not bear repeated listening. Three brief waltzes from the 1930s are similarly slight genre pieces. The Lyric Waltz ’s main melody is quite similar to Greensleeves . The Waltz in B Major demonstrates a pleasant affability. And the Small Waltz shows Eller flirting with Poulencian harmonies. The only true disappointment on the disc is the theme and variations of 1912. A pleasant though generic chorale theme is put through a predictable series of variations: it is arpeggiated, ornamented in triplets, placed in canon with itself, and played in the parallel minor. The piece sounds like a composition exercise and is unlikely to hold the listener’s interest. In no way do I fault Lassmann for including these pieces, though I doubt they have any place other than in a complete survey of Eller’s work. It is does mean, however, that only two-thirds of this recording is of significant musical interest.

Lassmann’s playing is confident and expressive throughout the disc. Eller’s music has moments of impressive technical display, and Lassmann is more than capable in his execution of these moments. His lyrical passages are expressive and songlike, and his musical choices strike me as being stylistically apt. The recording itself is well-engineered, with a clean piano sound. Eller’s music is well worth exploring, and this disc is generally quite rewarding. I hope, though, that when Lassmann has completed his cycle of the complete works, Toccata Classics might release a compilation of Eller’s most significant pieces.

FANFARE: Myron Silberstein
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Sound Samples

Caprice in F-Sharp Minor
Romanze in F-Sharp Major
Molto vivo in F-Sharp Minor
Nocturne in B Major
Presto in F-Sharp Major
Lyric Waltz
Waltz in B Major
Small Waltz
Preludes, Book 2: No. 1. Lento pensieroso
Preludes, Book 2: No. 2. Andante con espressione
Preludes, Book 2: No. 3. Allegro agitato
Preludes, Book 2: No. 4. Sostenuto
Preludes, Book 2: No. 5. Allegretto capriccioso
Preludes, Book 2: No. 6. Spiritoso
Preludes, Book 2: No. 7. Grave
Theme and Variations in E Major: Theme: Andantino
Theme and Variations in E Major: Variation 1: Allegretto
Theme and Variations in E Major: Variation 2: Moderato assai
Theme and Variations in E Major: Variation 3: Allegro
Theme and Variations in E Major: Variation 4: Adagio
Theme and Variations in E Major: Variation 5: Vivace
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 1. Andantino
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 2. Vivo
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 3. Allegro pastorale
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 4. Allegro
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 5. Andante sostenuto
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 6. Presto scherzando
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 7. Alla ballata
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 8. Allegro con brio
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 9. Lento
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 10. Allegretto grazioso
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 11. Allegro giusto
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 12. Vivace
13 Pala eesti motiividel (13 Pieces on Estonian Motifs): No. 13. Moderato assai

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