3 Swedish Composers Rule Virtual Stage On CD Of Piano Concertos

Sven-David Sandström, Ryan Bancroft, CVNA
The late Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström’s last work, Five Pieces for Piano and Orchestra, is performed on a new CD. (Photo by Elias Sjögren)

Netzel, Sandström & Tarrodi: Piano Concertos; Peter Friis Johansson, piano; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Ryan Bancroft, conductor; Laura Netzel: Piano Concerto, Op. 84 (completion by Peter Friis Johansson); Sven-David Sandström: Five Pieces for Piano and Orchestra; Andrea Tarrodi: Stellar Clouds – Piano Concerto No. 1; BIS-2576 SACD

DIGITAL REVIEW — Although new piano concertos have been in steady supply recently, the new BIS Records album by the Swedish-Danish pianist Peter Friis Johansson and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under American conductor Ryan Bancroft adds a nationalist angle by zeroing in on concertos by Swedish composers. Yet there is much variety among and within the three selections for piano concertos that span more than 100 years between the turn-of-the-century romanticism of Laura Netzel (1839–1927) and the natural-phenomena-themed, minimalism-tinged music of Andrea Tarrodi (b. 1981). Sandwiched between is the staggering last major work by Sven-David Sandström (1942–2019).

 BIS Records, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Peter Friis Johansson

Friis Johansson, who premiered all three of these multigenerational concertos between 2017 and 2020, revisits them here. He adopts phrasing that favors a well-articulated and sharply focused staccato touch, drawing out strong changes in temperament within each piece.

Sandström, one of Sweden’s most-performed composers at the time of his death, abandoned avant-garde composition in the 1980s and turned to neo-romanticism, Måns Tengnér explains in the liner notes. The Five Pieces for Piano and Orchestra fluctuate between the lush style that harks back to the 19th century and quicksilver harmonies that are subject to unpredictable changes. But Sandström maintains a cohesive through-line that ties the five untitled movements together, conjuring dissonances and dusky figurations between the piano and the ensemble.

Within the first minute, Sandström fashions bumptious percussion rolls, nervy brass, woodwinds, and strings, and a contrasting carefree piano part that gradually takes on a more assertive mood. Forte declamations and orchestral outbursts signal the end of each compact episode. The third movement opens with a dreamy, sunny short cadenza that displays Friis Johansson’s ease with the demanding passagework; he comes across as confident without being flamboyant. The mood changes with the entrance of a muted, foggy shimmer from the strings, against which loud pairs of notes ring out from the piano — an otherworldly, gripping sonority.

Esteban Meneses, Laura Netzel, Andrea Tarrodi
Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi. (Photo by Louisa Sundell)

The roiling current of the jolting fourth movement segues into the stirring finale, emblematic of Sandstrom’s late-career pluralistic style. Tengnér notes that Sandström’s late works — including the Six Pieces for Piano Trio and Orchestra (2011), which prompted Friis Johansson to commission the concerto — are organized into what the composer called “pieces” of varying character. In the context of the full work, though, the pieces still function as traditional movements.

Stellar Clouds, Tarrodi’s first piano concerto, is also informed by past traditions, though it doesn’t shy away from contemporary and pop-minded hooks: the outer-space theme, with titles like “Star Formation” and “Constellations,” and a well-crafted minimalism. In the orchestral introduction, the strings billow repeatedly over two chords that are orchestrated in a way that elicits the grandeur of uncharted space. The piano enters on “Star Formation” — the second of seven movements — imitating in broken chords the harmonic progression of the opening.

In “Hypernova,” an eruptive brass motif delivers on the magnificence that the introduction promises, returning majestically in the finale. The introspective cadenza before the finale is modeled on Ravel’s “Ondine” from Gaspard de la Nuit; at first tentative, it later follows clear chord changes and rises to a clamorous theme with strong accents. The piece ends with solo piano, an intimate contrast to the celestial outbursts that came before. Stellar Clouds is a thoroughly engaging and accessible piano concerto — though never in a conciliatory way — that holds its own without the well-worn space theme.

Peter Johansson
Laura Netzel (1839–1927) in a portrait from 1863.

The most interesting thing about Netzel’s three-movement concerto is the completion by Friis Johansson, who wrote the missing 116 bars — roughly the second half of the finale — using sketches Netzel left behind. He takes a sensible cyclical approach, returning to the second theme of the first movement. In his own notes, Friis Johansson’s candid estimation is that Netzel “had much to express but, at the same time, [she] was not necessarily in full command of the seasoned composer’s complete toolkit.”

No point arguing with that, though there still are charming moments, like the turn to more intimate interplay between the soloist and single woodwinds — an oboe near the middle of the Allegro moderato, or a flute in the Lento — when the saccharine strings give way. Netzel otherwise tends to indulge in oversweet sentimentality. But then again, there are genuine Romantic swells, with transitions memorably punctuated by the harp.

At nearly 80 minutes — each piece around 25 minutes long — the disc packs in supreme pianism by Friis Johansson, sure-handed conducting by Bancroft, and an expertly recorded Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, shedding light on three composers who might otherwise have gone unappreciated outside of Europe. And, with the historically informed completion of the Netzel, throwing in a bit of musicology for good measure.