For her third appearance on the Frederick Collection’s Historical Piano Concerts series yesterday, Gail Olszewski played 29 piano miniatures by 7 Finnish composers. Most of these late 19th and early 20th century composers other than Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), are not commonly known here. They were, in chronological order, Oskar Merikanto (1868-1924), Erkki Melartin (1875-1937; lifespan identical to Ravel’s), Selim Palmgren (1878-1951; known as the Finnish Chopin, he taught composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, for several years in the 1920s), Heino Kaski (1885-1957; a violinist who died the same day as Sibelius), Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947), and Ilmari Hannikainen (1892-1955).
In spite of its proximity to Russia, Findland’s music traditions do not show Russian influence. The folk/peasant music is similar but not identical to Sweden’s; the classical music is more closely tied to the music of France and Germany, where several of the day’s composers studied. Hannikainen was heavily influenced by the music of Robert Schumann, for example, while it was Palmgren who brought the French Impressionist style of Debussy to Finland. Merikanto was also an organist and conductor. Melartin was a conductor as well; he conducted the first performance of a Mahler symphony (No. 2) in Finland, and he wrote the first opera in Finnish, Aino. Madetoja was a student of Sibelius and was very interested in the music and traditions of Ostrabothnia, his native region in the south-western part of the country, one of the two (Aland is the other) with a Swedish-speaking majority. His Legenda, Op. 34, No. 3, brought immediately to my mind some of his teacher’s orchestral pieces based on Finnish legends.
For the recital, Olszewskli chose the 1877 Blüthner, the same instrument used by Malcolm Halliday last Sunday, whose details you can find in my review of his performance here. This was an appropriate choice, since it’s a make that was relatively common in the Finland of the times; it was also an auspicious one, because its sonorities suited the music particularly well. Its deeper, more resonant bass and its transparent soprano registers contrast markedly with its mellow, harmonious middle registers—so warm that the music simply seems to be caressed. I asked, after the recital, a first-time-ever attendee in the audience who was seated behind me what his impression of the instrument and the performance was; his reply: “magical,” which was my reaction as well. It was as if the works had been written for that very piano. To my ears, it seemed especially striking in Merikanto’s Valse lente and his Idylle.
The pieces were grouped under the headings: “abstract forms” (such as prelude, etude, etc.), “pieces with descriptive titles” (such as berceuse, idylle, etc.), “pieces based on folk tunes,” and “seasonal and night music.” Olszewski spoke, concerning this last, of the importance of the long midsummer nights in the culture, and the traditions that feature celebratory partying and dancing. There was, of course, some inevitable overlapping: a few pieces could just as well have been placed in a different category from the one where they were heard. And there was also inevitably some repetition of forms, such as the waltz, which was represented three times, including the final piece which is perhaps the most famous of all: Merikanto’s Kesäilta, Op. 1, Summer Evening Waltz, perhaps better known in its orchestrated form. As is inevitable in a recital of so many short works, they began to mingle and lose some of their individuality as the recital progressed. Olszewski has clearly investigated, researched, and studied the music thoroughly, and it showed in her interpretations throughout; although she used scores, she was not scorebound. Her playing style is very concentrated and restrained, so there is never any distraction from the music itself. She also asked the audience to hold its applause until the end of each group, and it complied, which allowed listeners to savor each piece individually and in the context of its companions.
In her opening comments, Olszewski mentioned that silence, called for by the rests marked in the scores, plays an important role in the pieces. Indeed, as a listener, it seemed to me that this is more true of this tradition than of any other with which I am familiar; the Finns certainly do not feel any of the horror vacui that bothers many, including all too many concertgoers who feel the need to applaud before the music has died. Many of the works have rests scattered throughout, and several have a prolonged, pronounced fermata near their endings, or just prior to a differentiated repeat. She did not comment on any distinctive characteristics of Finnish music, but as I listened, I noticed that the waltzes seemed to have a charming twist to the standard rhythm, a bit of a hesitation in the middle, that distinguished them from their continental counterparts, perhaps originating in a folk/peasant dance rhythms. A Finnish listener averred that Olszewski got it exactly right.
It is impossible to list and to talk about all 29 pieces, or 30 when Sibelius’ Lied, Op. 97, No. 2 that Olszewski played as an encore is added. This music is charming, delightful, simply lovely with beautiful melodies, interesting rhythms and textures, and considerable variety, similar to but yet distinctly different from its continental European counterparts. Olszewski was a wonderful advocate.
Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is now a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College.