Englund Piano Concerto no. 1

performed by Matti Raekallio and the Tampere Philharmonic under Eri Klas, or below by Niklas Sivelöv and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under Jorma Panula (but I strongly recommend Raekallio’s recording)

I can see your destiny in your eyes. You will become an accomplished composer.

Jean Sibelius, to Einar Englund

(cover image by Pascal Debrunner)

I’ll go so far as to say this is as good, as enjoyable, as marvelous a piano concerto as any of the 20th century, bar none.

Einar Englund’s first piano concerto was composed for a composition competition in 1955, arranged by the Finnish Cultural Foundation. Englund won, putting Aarre Merikanto’s piano concerto in second place. Classics Today remarks that “It’s simply astonishing that Einar Englund’s Piano Concertos have not become firm staples of the repertoire,” and Naxos says that it “has become one of the most frequently performed Finnish piano concertos.” And with good reason. Naxos also tells us that “Its themes are derived from the yoik, the vocal style of the Sámi people of Lappland, the same music that the composer drew on for his score for the film The White Reindeer.” You can read more about the yoik (or joik) here.

The piece is in three movements, as follows, and has a duration of about 22 minutes:

  1. Moderato
  2. Larghissimo
  3. Allegro ma non troppo

I feel like I’ll spare you the time reading my article and just tell you to go listen to the piece. It’s absolutely remarkable. If we’re going to talk comparisons, to try to create a recipe in the terms of more familiar composers, then we’d start with two parts each of Bartók and Shostakovich, four parts of Prokofiev, nothing more than a dash of Rachmaninoff, a quarter of a dash, even, and then the rest is just… secret ingredients, something that I don’t find anywhere else in the repertoire, but those names give you the idea that it’s a powerful 20th century work that really shouldn’t be too unfamiliar to anyone who knows the music of the era.

That being said, though, it is an astounding piece of music entirely in its own right. Englund wrote the piece for himself, improvised the first movement cadenza (during the competition, I assume; I’m not sure), and apparently then transcribed it for inclusion into the score upon publication. It’s a beastly-sounding work; be they compositional or pianistic, Englund clearly had the chops and wrote a concerto that, dare I say, is more gripping a work than either of Shostakovich’s efforts.

The first and longest movement sees an aggressive orchestra make the first statement, to which the piano responds surprisingly delicately. From the opening moments, this work reminds me of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto, and if you know that work, I think it’s unmistakable. There’s nothing derivative about it, though, as things quickly ramp up to give us a sense of the composer’s heavy hand. Englund’s writing for woodwinds is marvelous throughout, but what is absolutely arresting is the cadenza that takes up a goodly portion of the first movement. Granted, it’s nothing like the gargantuan Prokofiev cadenza, but what is?

This whirlwind first movement is one you’d expect to end with soul-cracking heft, but no. It ends quietly, as begins the second movement. We have an English horn solo, and there’s a strange sense of unsettling stillness, like what we might find from Shostakovich, or perhaps like Bartók’s ‘night music.’ Between the two outer movements, this slow movement, even though it is in Raekallio’s recording a sliver longer than the finale, feels like an interlude, just a quiet corner away from the action, but it is indeed beautiful. The movement actually grows to a surprisingly heavy climax, leading us to believe we’re going to carry over into the finale, but before that happens, everything drops away and this movement also ends quietly.

The finale, barely the shortest movement of the piece, begins with what sounds like a callback to the first movement. The piano theme is very reminiscent of the frenetic, darkly comical tone of Shostakovich, dizzyingly busy. In contrast with that is an imposing march-like passage, heavy and driving that leads to a solo passage. Here we see another fine side of Englund in his fugal writing, ultimately ending in a magnificent Bartók-ish climax, again calling back to the first movement.

This piece is something that you can really sink your teeth into, or rather perhaps that sinks its teeth into you. The only thing, to me, that might preclude this work from being an uncontested crowd pleaser is that it’s a little heavy in its emotional content, an aggressive work that may land on many listeners’ ears as a bit heavy to enjoy casually, but that’s right up my alley. It’s a brilliant work, one that easily deserves a spot in the inner circle of the greatest piano concertos of the 20th century.



One thought on “Englund Piano Concerto no. 1

  1. The way the vigour of the first movement melts into the contemplation of the second reminded me of RVW’s concerto for the instrument (another piece influenced by Bartók, and which, indeed, met with the latter’s approval). Are you familiar with that, and its surprising ending? It’s well worth investigating, despite being another concerto (like Simpson’s for violin) whose own composer grew to loathe it after the fact.

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