Christmas Piano Music, Peter Froundjian

Christmas Piano Music
Music by Busoni, Koechlin, Inghelbrecht et al
Peter Froundjian p
Sony 88985380162

It would be a fair call to describe eclectically-minded pianist Peter Froundjian as a regular traveller along the by-ways of the repertoire. So keen is he on championing the underplayed, he founded the respected Raritäten der Klaviermusik (Rarities of Piano Music) Festival that has taken place in Husum – that’s in Schleswig-Holstein – every year since 1987. Here, he turns his prodigious programming brain to Christmas music with predictably engaging results.

“By its very nature the piano is not really an instrument that we associate with Christmas,” says Froundjian in his authoritative booklet essay. “When we think of Yule, we tend to think, rather, of solo and choral singing, recorders – and the sound of brass and strings – and the organ, especially since there is nothing remotely sacred about the sound of the piano.” It’s a moot point, and Froundjian describes the tracks on this generously filled Sony CD as more like “meditations” on orchestral or vocal Christmas music with which we are likely to be familiar. If that makes you worry that all you will get are some souped-up variations on Hark the Herald, fear not, there’s plenty here – and a fair few gems – that entertains as music in its own right.

Take Snowflakes, the opener by the Finnish composer Selim Palmgren (1878-1951). Three minutes of perfection, it manages to remind one of church bells and winter snow all at once. Equally magical, and similar in feel, if a bit more churchy, is Busoni’s impressionistic Nuit de Noël from 1908 (most of this repertoire spans a century from 1850-1950). If Lyapunov’s Nuit de Noël and other works by the likes of Gustav Helsted (1857-1924)and Franciszek Brzeziński (1867-1944) occupy similarly cool emotional territories, they are offset by more sprightly dance-inspired pieces like Pastorale by Ignaz Friedman (1882–-) and the jaunty  Jule-Idyl by Alfred Tofft (1865-1931). The carol-inspired works are there too – like Nielsen’s Drømmen om Glade Jul from 1905 that riffs on Silent Night and Bax’s rumbustious O Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies, which employs a similar musical pattern to I Saw Three Ships.

The two big ticket items here are Koechlin’s imaginative Pastorales – 12 short, improvisatory pieces written without bar lines and nodding towards the world of polytonality – and the seven Pastourelles by Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht (1880-1965). The Inghelbrecht gives real pleasure, ingeniously reworking a handful of familiar Provençal carols – watch out for Il est né, le divin enfant and the catchy farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne.

Froundjian is never one to thrust his own personality in front of the composer’s, and this enjoyable recital is played throughout with pure tone and the just the right degree of simplicity and grace. Sony’s piano sound is most natural too, ensuring that these sometimes fragile works are given the best possible chance to argue their cases. An excellent stocking-filler for the pianophile in your life.