Laura Netzel (1839-1927)
Piano Concerto, Op. 84
Sven-David Sandström (1942-2019)
Five Pieces for Piano and Orchestra (2017)
Andrea Tarrodi (b. 1981)
Stellar Clouds – Piano Concerto No. 1 (2015)
Peter Friis Johansson (piano)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Ryan Bancroft
rec. 2021, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden
BIS BIS-2576 SACD 
Three Swedish piano concertos on the same disc is novel enough, added to which the names of at least two of the composers will be unfamiliar even to seasoned music lovers.
The piano concerto by Laura Netzel was her Op. 84, no less. Since hers was a new name to me, another surprise was to read in the booklet that her music was particularly appreciated in France – my home country – as well as in Belgium and in Germany. Born in Finland, she was only one year old when she arrived in Sweden. That women composers suffered the same prejudice there as elsewhere explains, perhaps, why she wrote under a pseudonym. The score of her piano concerto existed only in manuscript and in several different versions. In addition, the finale was unfinished, leaving Peter Friis Johansson, the soloist on this recording, to complete it.
Netzel’s Op. 84 is an ambitious, three-movement, virtuoso concerto. The opening movement is dramatic and tempestuous, its path and direction convincing. The slow movement provides considerable lyrical contrast, with an important part for the orchestral harp. Tremolando strings just before the end might by thought an unnecessarily dramatic gesture. As for the finale, Johansson added 116 bars of music to provide the work with an ending. He explains in the booklet that he made use of existing thematic material, as well as a sketch, and brought back material from earlier in the work, as the composer had in other works. He has made a thoroughly worthwhile work available to us, though perhaps not a hitherto undiscovered masterpiece. The thematic material is not always so memorable, but there is a drive to the music, and a feeling for form and narrative, that are very attractive. Johansson and his colleagues make a convincing case for it.
Sven-David Sandström’s Five Pieces could scarcely be more different. The composer wanted to distance himself from the conventional idea of concerto form, still less the idea of a barnstorming, virtuoso work in which the piano and the orchestra pit themselves one against the other. The result is a work in which the solo instrument and the orchestra have complementary roles, the relationship a collaborative one. The fourth and second pieces are fairly unified in mood, the fourth a kind of scherzo, though violent rather than genial, whereas the second movement brings us music of the utmost delicacy, atmospheric and eerie, with a close that perfectly prepares for the third piece, a kind of cadenza. Johansson, in requesting the work, had asked for a cadenza that could be extracted and played as a separate, unaccompanied work. That is not what he got in the end, as the orchestra returns before a minute is out. All the pieces save the fourth close with a fade-out almost to nothing, often in the upper register; the end of the whole work is particularly affecting. There is several passages where the piano is associated with one other solo instrument, and much of the work is dominated by wisps and fragments of themes presented in textures that are simply ravishing. Few, indeed, would come away from this work without remarking on the sheer beauty of its material. The musical language employed is unmistakeably contemporary, but much of it is tonal, richly harmonic, and while passages of the solo writing put this listener in mind of Debussy, there are other passages that could almost be by Rachmaninov. Sandström was a fascinating composer, and I can only urge curious listeners to explore this work.
Andrea Tarrodi distances herself even further from the idea of a conventional concerto than does Sandström. She needs no fewer than seven movements to convey her message, and the piano part, far from being a showcase of the soloist’s considerable technical skills, is frequently allotted subsidiary material and is often nearly hidden in the orchestral mass. There is very little of what one could describe as melodic writing, the composer instead preferring texture, colour, figuration and rhythm. Where there is some melodic content it is mostly given to the soloist, often a series of near-isolated notes interspersed with arabesque-like gestures. The title of the work gives a clue to the composer’s aims, as do four of the movement titles. ‘Hypernova’, for instance, is made up of fast, driving minimalist-style music, violent, highly dissonant and with the soloist kept very busy but hidden within the orchestral maelstrom. Johansson’s favourite movement is the charming ‘Cosmic Nursery’, dedicated to his son and to the composer’s daughter. As with Sandström, Johansson requested a stand-alone cadenza, and this time the composer provided one, whose texture, according to the booklet, ‘is reminiscent of Ravel’s masterly Ondine’, but which also builds up a stupendous head of steam toward the end. The finale – entitled ‘Recapitulation’ – opens with a lengthy passage of rapid music that is the most exciting in the work, before an immense calming takes place, the soloist leading the way to disappear into silence. Less immediately attractive than the Sandström, Tarrodi’s concerto none the less exerts a powerful and satisfying effect.
Peter Friis Johansson plays here two concertos that were written for him and a third he completed himself. His personal investment is considerable, his playing phenomenal. The orchestral playing, under the able direction of Ryan Bancroft, is superb throughout. I listen to this SACD in simple stereo, and enjoy sound of great depth, richness and precision. The pianist presents each work in the booklet, and there is an essay by Måns Tengnér in which he suggests that listeners should ‘simply let ourselves be absorbed by the purely musical aspects … together creating a unique whole.’ Amen to that.
Previous review: Hubert Culot (February 2023)
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