American Record Guide

independent critics reviewing classical recordings and music in concert

September-October 2012


BLUMENFELD: Piano Pieces

Jouni Somero

FC 9706—69 minutes

For people familiar with the music of Felix Blumenfeld,

there should be no qualms about

acquiring this recording. All of the selections

save one are new to CD, and the performances

are beautifully realized with careful attention

to phrasing and dynamics.

Blumenfeld (1863-1931) was born in Russia

and studied composition under Rimsky-Korsakoff.

As a piano teacher he counted among

his students Simon Barere, Vladimir Horowitz,

and Maria Yudina. His music is romantic,

technically challenging, and Russian to the

core. Only the Etude de Concert, Op. 24, is

duplicated on another disc, so this recording is

mandatory for expanding your Blumenfeld

collection. As a study in contrast it is enlightening

to compare this with the performance by

Daniel Blumenthal on Marco Polo. Somero is

the more powerful player, though Blumenthal

achieves impressive results with his refined,

more poetic playing. It would be hard to

choose between them.

The Suite Polonaise has four dance movements

and must be a delight to play as well as

to hear. It is unpretentious and has the wonderful

melodic and harmonic twists of the late

Russian romantics. It also owes a certain debt

to Chopin. With its ten brief movements, the

Moments Lyriques strike a more serious tone,

with melody slightly more elusive than the

Suite and a definite sadness defining most of

the pieces. Nicolas Medtner comes to mind

most often in listening to it.

Two Nocturnes, Souvenir Douloureux, and

the other pieces are all worth getting to know.

The short Danse, Op. 53:1 that concludes the

program reaches into new harmonic territory

reflective of Scriabin or Catoire.

In all of this, Finnish-born (1963) Jouni

Somero shows complete mastery and the highest

interpretive skills. None of the music save

the Suite can be considered to belong to the

salon. All of it is serious and requires great subtlety

and a willingness to probe the depths.

Somero studied in Cologne and Switzerland

with Georgy Cziffra and Michael Ponti. In 1987

he was awarded a diploma at the International

Music Competition in Rio de Janeiro. He is

well represented on records. Notes are decent,

if brief, and the recording is very good. Chalk

this up as another recent discovery of some





American Record Guide

independent critics reviewing classical recordings and music in concert

September-October 2012


TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Pieces, opp 5, 7, 8, 40

Mikhail Pletnev

Regis 1354—64 minutes

Sonata in G; Children’s Album; Aveau Passionne;

Impromptu; Valse-Scherzo

Jouni Somero, p

FC 9728—77 minutes

The Pletnev is a reissue from Melodiya (from

1986 and 1988). This may be its first appearance

in this country. Had I heard it back then, I

would have praised it for its elegance, style,

and spirit. Listening to it now gives me great

pleasure and joy at having discovered the

many beauties of performances totally in sympathy

with the music. Were I required to recommend

a single disc of the composer’s piano

music, this would be the one. While all of the

selections belong to the realm of salon music,

they are melodic and charming. The slower

pieces also have a wistful sadness and bleed a

bit from the heart of old Russia.

The remaining three opus numbers are

additional gems to remind us what we are

missing since Pletnev has not recorded the

composer’s complete piano works. Although

we have a nicely performed complete set with

Victoria Postnikova and the start of a set with

Oxana Yablonskaya, neither is quite in the

same league as Pletnev. Even if you have the

Postnikova, you may want to consider this as a

supplement. The uncredited notes are good,

and the recording is excellent.

With Somero we have the start of yet

another set of the complete piano music.

Although this is marked as Volume 2, I have

not seen Volume 1; and if you look carefully

enough, the present volume is also marked

Volume 3, apparently of a series called “Russian

Project”. Forget this, and forget the strange

spellings on this Finnish label’s website.

Somero is one heck of a pianist and I am

pleased to make his acquaintance twice this

month (see Blumenfeld review).

The Grand Sonata in G is a monumental

work lasting over half an hour. It has many

recordings—even one by Pletnev on Melodiya

with pretty nearly this same coupling. A check

of the Regis website shows that it is available

once again. It could be worth some serious

consideration. Somero meanwhile, aided by

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186 September/October 2012

some fabulous sound, offers a powerfully penetrating

performance, as gutsy as one could

wish in this super-charged music. Some might

quibble with his demonic, driven approach,

though the music is designed to take no captors

and to live constantly on the brink.

Postnikova, on the other hand, takes several

minutes longer and makes a heavier, more

weighty experience of the music. Her lyrical

contrasts are more deeply felt, but we have less

of an exciting ride, particularly in the Finale.

She is no lightweight in the technical department,

though anyone playing this music must

be able to toss off difficulties with ease.

Sviatoslav Richter polishes off the Sonata

in slightly over 30 minutes, yet there is never

any feeling of undue haste. I am inclined to

give him the nod for overall excellence; very

few pianists could duplicate his achievement.

With everything perfectly in place, and his

expressiveness reaching the heart and soul of

this music, all one can do is sit back and marvel.

Yablonskaya takes an altogether different

view of this music. Her performance is all delicacy

and avoidance of fire and brimstone. If I

find it at odds with the nature of the music, she

certainly tries to make a valid case for it. Don’t

expect it to set you afire.

The pleasant little pieces that make up the

Children’s Album find strong advocacy in the

hands of both Somero and Postnikova.

Tchaikovsky’s answer to Kinderszenen was

even dedicated to Schumann. The remaining

three pieces in Somero’s selection are without

opus numbers and date from 1889. They are

most pleasant to listen to. Somero’s notes are

extremely brief, but to the point.


American Record Guide

independent critics reviewing classical recordings and music in concert

May-Juli 2014

GADE: Piano Sonata; Aquarelles;
GRIEG: Sonata; Lyric Pieces (2)
Jouni Somero
FCRCD- 9750—58 minutes
Finnish pianist Somero is a big man, has a big
technique, a big repertory, and performs mostly
big works on the fringe of the repertory. This
recording gives us the opportunity of contrasting
two piano sonatas—one by the Norwegian
Grieg, and the other by his teacher, Niels Gade
of Denmark.
Both are large and challenging works. The
Gade was written in 1840 when Chopin, Liszt,
and Schumann were composing their greatest
solo piano works—and their influence is
strongly felt. Grieg’s Sonata was written in
1865 near the end of his studies with Gade.
Both composers were in their early 20s when
they wrote the sonatas, and Grieg dedicated
his to his mentor. A further bit of intertwining
occurs with the Lyric Piece ‘Gade’ which Grieg
wrote the year of his teacher’s death. The other
Lyric Piece is the famous ‘Notturno’, which
Somero executes with loving care.
The Grieg Sonata gives us a good idea how
this popular miniaturist handled larger forms.
The Andante molto has some of the lyricism to
be found in the Piano Concerto, and all his
work has Norwegian folk idioms. Somero takes
full honors over all recordings I have heard of
both sonatas, and they are pretty good. With
his splashy showmanship and probing lyricism
there is little to take exception to.
Both sonatas are rhetorical, virtuosic
works. They are in the same key and harmonically
share a similar dimension. While Grieg
has added an extra ‘Alla Menuetto’ movement
before the Finale, Gade’s three-movement
Sonata is the longer work by five minutes. Both
hold the attention well and have arresting
pages for both pianist and listener.
If you already have recordings of these
sonatas rest content; they require a high level
of pianistic skills fully met by the competition.
If you do not, consider Somero—in splendid
sound and with his own probing notes. You
will not be disappointed.

American Record Guide

independent critics reviewing classical recordings and music in concert

September-October 2012



Volume 3: The Little Wanderer; 6 Preludes,

op 13; Marionettes; Sonata 1

Volume 5: 4 Pieces, op 10; 3 Pieces, op 24; 12

New Etudes, op 29

Jouni Somero, p

3: FC 9723—68 minutes 5: FC 9736—72 minutes

Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) was born in the

Ukraine, educated in St Petersburg and

Leipzig, and died an Austrian citizen in Vienna.

While his life began only four years later

and lasted nine years longer than Rachmaninoff’s

the two Russians can easily be viewed as

exact contemporaries. There is no evidence

that they ever met or performed each other’s

music. While Rachmaninoff’s life story is fairly

well known, leaving Russia for good in 1917

during the Revolution and eventually becoming

an American citizen, Bortkiewicz found

himself caught up in the horrors of the Russian

Revolution and both World Wars. He moved

often and was financially dependent on the

generosity of friends and benefactors. Even

though he became an Austrian citizen in 1925,

he was viewed as a Russian by the Nazi regime

and his works were banned in Germany. The

wealth that Rachmaninoff earned as a concert

pianist, conductor, and composer the last 25

years of his life were completely unknown to

Bortkiewicz. I find it therefore somewhat

incongruous that Bortkiewicz’s music, while

similar stylistically to Rachmaninoff’s, is more

positive and bright than the pervasive melancholy

we associate with Rachmaninoff.

Bortkiewicz’s musical style is heavily influenced

by Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovsky,

and Liadov. There are also similarities with

Rachmaninoff and even early Scriabin. 38 of

his 70 opus numbers are for solo piano (a

number are 10 or more short pieces), two more

are for piano duet, plus three piano concertos,

a number of songs, and a good quantity of

chamber music with piano. He was quite a fine

concert pianist; and, except for a few sets of

pieces specifically designed for amateur

pianists, his music is very challenging.

Of the music on these two discs, I found

the sonata and the etudes the most compelling,

with performances to match. These

are big virtuoso pieces, the sonata similar to

the first sonatas of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin,

except this is in a major key. Bortkiewicz

packed the etudes with all the romantic emotion

and technical demands that you are familiar

with if you know Chopin’s. Both The Little

Wanderer and Marionettes are sets of teaching

pieces in a wide variety of musical styles, and

could easily introduce young musicians to a

wide range of music. Somero imbues each

with the requisite panache, and they hold your

interest over many hearings. The other sets of

pieces range from short two-or-three minute

pieces like the Six Preludes to more substantial

six-minute plus pieces with Chopin-inspired

titles like Ballade, Nocturne, and Impromptu.

Jouni Somero (b. 1963) is a very busy

Finnish pianist with over 2500 concerts and 80

recordings to his credit. He has recorded four

volumes of Rachmaninoff, five volumes of

Finnish piano music, as well as eight volumes

of Bortkiewicz. His booklet notes are very good

(and well translated from the original Finnish).

He has all the necessary technical equipment

and sensitivity, coupled with a clear affinity for

late romantic piano music. These are very

enjoyable recordings.



American Record Guide

independent critics reviewing classical recordings and music in concert

July-August 2012


TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Pieces 1

Jouni Somero

FC 9720—76 minutes

Tchaikovsky’s piano music is not as well
known as it should be, and Finnish pianist
Jouni Somero makes a strong case for it in this
well filled disc, first of a series. The longest
work here is the Piano Sonata from 1865, a student
experiment full of attractive ideas, though
little of pianistic interest. On the other hand,
the program includes a treacherous etude,
cleanly and forcefully played. Most of this is
salon pieces: marches, mazurkas, waltzes,
scherzos, and a gorgeously melancholy ‘Chanson
Triste’. These are charming, well made,
and unmistakably Tchaikovskian.
Somero’s tone is light and often lovely. He
has released a number of CDs on his own
label, Finn Concert, much of it rare repertory.

This is the most attractive one I have heard so far.


Dazzling and Muscular Performances of Godard’s
Best Piano Music

By Hexameron on February 1, 2016 (Amazon)

Benjamin Godard (1849-1895) was much like Saint-Saens: a cosmopolitan Frenchman not at all seduced by Wagner and instead influenced by Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Liszt. He was manifestly inspired by these composers when writing for the piano. Many of his pieces meet the exigencies of the amateur salon market, while others require the virtuosity of a concert pianist. The Grand Piano label is surveying Godard’s piano music with pianist Eliane Reyes, but she is outclassed by Jouni Somero, who has the muscle and spirited élan to bring out the best in these works.

The “Valse Chromatique’ is a tour-de-force, one of Godard’s most garishly acrobatic examples of bravura pianism. It is bustling with ostentatious flourishes, glissandi, splashy octaves, and Alkan-like chromatic scalar figures going up and down. Somero plays the hell out of it, achieving more bombast than the piece probably requires, and the ensuring fireworks are riveting. By contrast the “Promenade en mer” is a gentle salon piece evoking a boat scene, which has a major tempestuous climax. Compared with Reyes, Somero is the better showman and performer. He exhibits tremendous brio and plays with colossal strength and Romantic abandon in the crescendos, whereas Reyes is restrained and keeps her dynamics low. She approaches this piece as if it’s a delicate French nocturne, while Somero tackles it with Lisztian flair.

A similar disparity between performers is on display in the Sonata Fantastique, perhaps Godard’s most significant piano work. Each movement is of a programmatic nature. “The Spirits of the Forest” features a rapid patter of tremolos and a repeated bass note figure depicting forest creatures. Godard employs the flamboyant attitude and pianistic devices of Liszt, and Somero’s heavier hand enlivens the work. “Goblins” is all bouncy and comical with a light elfin texture. “The Fairy of Love” is a Schumannesque song without words. In Somero’s hands, its passionate climax becomes a monumental grandiose outpouring; absolutely breath-taking and heartfelt. Reyes is cold and anemic by comparison. “The Spirits of the Sea” is akin to Chopin’s fastest and most turbulent of pieces with its breakneck speed and whirlwinds of arpeggios, all of which Somero plays confidently faster than Reyes.

Godard’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is cut from the same cloth as the first. It begins with an “Allegro” of Russian character, utilizing a staccato rendering of the “Dies Irae” motif in its first theme. Virtuosic flourishes and passagework are abundant. Once again, Somero demonstrates more fire and brio than Reyes. The “Adagio” feints the listener with a lyrical respite, but things are not as relaxing as a typical slow movement. Sudden rumblings of turbulence and a rousing dramatic central section keep things exciting. Somero gives it all he’s got, imbuing every moment of passion with more intensity than Reyes. He produces massive sonorities in a stentorian fashion, which Reyes seems uninterested in exploiting.

Bottom line: If you’re going to sample Godard’s piano music, this is the disc to get. Fans of virtuosic Romantic pianism should enjoy the sonatas. For those tempted by the ongoing survey by Grand Piano, my opinion is that Eliane Reyes is not temperamentally suited to this repertoire. Somero clearly enjoys performing this kind of music, injecting an appreciable degree of feeling and dynamic power into the sonatas.