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Chopin: Piano Concertos

Chopin / Mertanen
Release Date: 12/08/2009 
Label:  Alba Records   Catalog #: 247   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Janne Mertanen
Conductor:  Hannu Koivula
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Joensuu City Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 12 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CHOPIN Piano Concertos: No. 1 in e; No. 2 in f Janne Mertanen (pn); Hannu Koivula, cond; Joensuu City O ALBA ABCD 247 (72:03)

Great interpreters of Chopin’s piano concertos form a group akin to an exclusive club. They are rather like great practitioners of bebop piano in jazz. They speak a rarified language, one that can be learned but which nevertheless requires a special affinity of temperament. There are more than a few pianists who perform Romantic piano concertos, the Grieg and the Schumann for instance, Read more but who avoid Chopin’s concertos. Then there are pianists such as Alfred Brendel and Stephen Kovacevich who espouse Chopin’s solo piano works on recordings, but never have attempted the full-scale bravura of the concertos on disc. I heard Rudolf Serkin play the preludes in recital. I can’t imagine him performing the concertos.

Which brings me to the pianist in question, the Finn Janne Mertanen. This is my first encounter with his artistry, and the loss until now has been all mine. Mertanen is that rare animal, previously extant in the persons of Alexander Brailowsky and Adam Harasiewicz, the Chopin specialist. Nearly all of Chopin’s works are in his repertoire. He won the International Chopin Competition in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1992. Mertanen has been recording Chopin since 1994. His CDs of the nocturnes, also on Alba, were awarded the Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin 2005 in Warsaw.

Mertanen studied with several distinguished teachers, most notably Dmitri Bashkirov and Lazar Berman. One can hear Berman’s influence in Mertanen’s wide dynamic range. His playing goes from a mere whisper, even in runs, to thunderous forte s, plus everything in between. As a Chopin player, he reminds me most of the great Jeanne-Marie Darré. There is the same precision in bravura passages. Both play with plenty of passion, but never let it descend into bathos. Mertanen is an extremely clear player. His execution is clean and solid—he plays all the notes, something one can’t take for granted in these works. Just listen to the classic Rubinstein/Barbirolli recordings from the 1930s to hear what even a great pianist at one time could get away with.

During the outer movements of the concertos, Mertanen is particularly attentive in his phrasing to Chopin’s dance-like rhythms. He reminds us forcefully of the fact that Chopin already had begun composing his mazurkas by this time. Mertanen honors the maestoso markings in the first movements through playing that is grand and dramatic, but never slow. I listened to Van Cliburn in the First Concerto for comparison, and his interpretation of maestoso is almost like syrup. Not that Mertanen is incapable of affecting playing. His second movements are true larghettos, always moving along while still tender and loving. His pedaling is exquisite, lending a luminous tone when appropriate. The First Concerto comes second on this disc, as is the order of composition; its slow movement nearly brought me to tears. The thrilling rondo that follows demonstrates that this is a pianist who, like the composer, can switch emotions on a dime.

The orchestra’s accompaniment is excellent, both spirited and dramatic. The Joensuu City Orchestra is a provincial Finnish ensemble numbering 35 players. The balance between piano and orchestra is altogether natural and superb, captured in recorded sound that is some of the best I’ve heard for a piano concerto. I doubt there was any electronic trickery in producing the recorded balance; I once heard a Chopin concerto performed live with New Jersey’s Adelphi Chamber Orchestra that had a satisfying blend of soloist and ensemble. I previously have heard the Joensuu orchestra’s conductor, the Finn Hannu Koivula, on excellent recordings of Rautavaara for Naxos and Nino Rota for BIS. To sum up, I would rank Mertanen in the First Concerto with Gary Graffman, on LP, and in the Second Concerto with Arthur Rubinstein’s first stereo recording, conducted by Alfred Wallenstein. In other words, this is some of the best Chopin playing I know of. Enthusiastically recommended.

FANFARE: Dave Saemann
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 2 in F minor, B 43/Op. 21 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Janne Mertanen (Piano)
Conductor:  Hannu Koivula
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Joensuu City Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1829-1830; Poland 
Venue:  Carelia Hall, Joensuu, Finland 
Length: 31 Minutes 54 Secs. 
Concerto for Piano no 1 in E minor, B 53/Op. 11 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Janne Mertanen (Piano)
Conductor:  Hannu Koivula
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Joensuu City Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; Poland 
Venue:  The Crelia Hall, Joensuu 
Length: 40 Minutes 5 Secs. 

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