France Ellegaard on Danacord

Danacord Records - DACOCD 897-898
3.5 of 5 stars

Music by Selim Palmgren, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Thomas Byström, Taneli Kunsisto, and Karl Flodin

France Ellegaard (piano) & various artists including Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nils-Eric Fougstedt & Paavo Berglund

Recorded 1954-1966 in Helsinki


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: February 2021
CD No: DANACORD DACD 897-898 (2CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 38 minutes

France Ellegaard (1913-1999) was a well-known Danish pianist who lived for the latter half of her life in Finland and took on Finnish nationality.  Much Finnish music from the mid-twentieth-century is presented in this set of recordings and more than half of the programme features the unreasonably neglected Selim Palmgren (1878-1944).

That composer’s Second Piano Concerto opens with mysterious Sibelius-like trembling strings and darkly-scored woodwind but it would be a mistake to assume that Palmgren’s music is any more than slightly influenced by the more famous Finn.  This is Nordic music with virtuosic keyboard writing worthy of Rachmaninov.  There is excellent rapport between Ellegaard and Niels-Erik Fougstedt and the flowing inter-relationship between soloist and orchestra is managed with skill and sensitivity.  There is excellent recorded balance in this 1955 recording.  The work is continuous and movements are not indicated separately but the conventional fast-slow-fast construction is evident.  

The Fourth Concerto from 1926 is the latest of the Palmgren compositions given here and begins with a minute-long cadenza.  The quiet but energetic initial orchestral sequences move the music on from the more romantically inclined ‘River’ Concerto composed thirteen years earlier.  Again this is a single-movementConcerto and the form is reminiscent of the conventional structure although the rapid sequence before the quiet middle section could be taken to represent a Scherzo. Paavo Berglund conducts this 1966 performance with skill and again the recording is excellent.  The piano-writing is often virtuosic but Ellegaard controls it calmly. 

The early C-minor Piano Sonata gives a good idea of Palmgren’s dramatic side.  He challenges in a Beethoven-like way and his bold themes, while still within the style of the period, have forceful impact.  The light-fingeredFinale starts with Grieg-like friendliness but allows the minor-key to throw shadows on the scene.  The mellifluous central Un poco moderato is performed with sensitivity.

The Isle of Shadows is the second of Palmgren’s Six Lyric Pieces subtitled ‘Youth’, a quiet, anxious, flowing piece perhaps suitable as an encore.

More positive elements are to be found in the Suite for Two Pianos from 1913 subtitled ‘Masked Ball’ – Palmgren was sufficiently pleased with the music to arrange it for solo piano ten years later. It commences with a virtuosic display and the remaining movements dance even when at a slow tempo.  There is also humour – especially in ‘Die Tänzerin’ which is delicate but it includes subtle discords…

Karl Flodin (1858-1925) was an interesting figure – well-known as well being a writer and critic in Finland’s Swedish-language press.  Perhaps daringly, he criticised Sibelius who was at the height of his fame at the time and was notably fierce in his disapproval of Symphonies 1, 2, 6 and 7.  His compositions presented here are pleasing   The Eclogue from his suite ‘Summer’ has a Nielsen-like charm and the ‘Mignonne’ Suite consists of five movements, not programmatic but nicely varied.  Ellegaard’s crisp playing lights up this attractive music.

Anja Ignatius joins Ellegaard in two Violin sonatas. That by Teneli Kuusisto (1905-1988) is from 1944 and is very much a work of its period – clearly twentieth-century music but optimism is the main feature – tuneful composers of the period such as Wiren come to mind.

The Sonata by Thomas Byström (1772-1839), despite having been composed a century and a half earlier, has a greater sense of drama and the swift onset of the final Allegro after the bold Menuetto makes a striking effect.  

Mozart’s D-minor Concerto K466 takes over half an hour – the speeds are not particularly slow but Ellegaard’s cadenzas for the outer movements are extensive.  Based firmly on Mozart’s themes they are vivid and exciting, full of adventurous ideas and do not upset the flow of the music.  The performance is probably more dramatic than it sounds because the hollow 1954 recording is unkind to the orchestra – in particular the extensive Beethoven-like introduction sounds mild with little impact from brass or drums. Convincing choice of tempo and a particularly sensitive second movement make for a convincing interpretation and these features compensate for the plain recorded sound which is inferior to that of the Palmgren Concertos.

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