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Heino Eller (1887-1970) may or may not be the father figure of Estonian music, but he is undoubtedly the most important of its early figures both as a teacher of some of Estonia’s most prominent post-war composers (Tubin, Sumera, Kaljo Raid, Jaan Rääts and Pärt) and as a composer. His not quite 200 piano works are the most numerous portion of an oeuvre including three symphonies, a violin concerto and many other orchestral works, five string quartets, three violin sonatas and other chamber music.

Toccata Classics’ piano music survey will take in seven discs, each mixing collections of miniatures with individual items and concluding with a major work: Sonata No 2 for Volume 1 and Moderato assai for Volume 2. On this new release, the Fourth Sonata (1957-58) forms the climax, its three compact movements an object lesson in how to combine contrapuntal dexterity with expressive clarity.

Sten Lassmann rightly calls it a ‘towering achievement’ in his excellent and informative booklet notes – which read, incidentally, as one vast extended essay volume by volume – and plays it with commendable sense of purpose. The opening Allegro risoluto’s terseness is in marked contrast with the open warmth of several of the Preludes or miniatures on previous volumes.

Eller may not, perhaps, have been Estonia’s Chopin, but in his set of Ten Lyric Pieces (1942-43), he can rightly be called its Grieg. These pieces have a dark side, dating from the time of his Jewish wife Anna’s arrest and murder by the SS. The Tenth is a theme and eight variations, dwarfing its companion pieces, and is perhaps better heard as a separate work.

In between lie a group of three Studies from 1917-19 (half the number he composed) and five Preludes from around 1929-30 that seem not to have been offi cially collected together, as with Books 1 and 3 on previous issues. The Studies are a mixed bag, combining the technically challenging with the light and, at times, slight. The Preludes lie somewhere between these extremes, as Lassmann aptly notes, with their ‘sparse textures, cautious tempi, and a laconic, enigmatic style’.

Lassmann’s playing is informed and compelling throughout, his performances in all three volumes carrying conviction. He is impressive when negotiating the rigour of the Sonatas, which more than stand comparison with some of Prokofiev’s early sonatas, and equally proficient in the freer structures such as the Danse- Caprice (1933) and The Bells (1929) on Volume 1, the Episode from Revolutionary Times on Volume 2 and the Theme and Variations on this newcomer.

The sound, recorded by Eric James at the Old Granary Studio in Beccles, Suffolk (and produced and edited by Lassmann himself), is commendably clear. If the acoustic seems a touch two- dimensional at times, it imparts a recital room intimacy to the listening experience that is apposite and attractive. Strongly recommended.

GUY RICKARDS Read the full review on Agora Classica

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