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Sibelius, J.: Sibelius Edition, Vol. 4 - Piano Music I Box set

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Track Listings

Disc: 1

  1. The Complete Piano Music 1 (195 tracks on 5 CD's) - Jean Sibelius

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worthy recordings of second- and third-tier Sibelius 10 Mar. 2010
By Michael Schell - Published on
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If you're interested in this volume of Bis's Sibelius Edition, then you're probably a confirmed Sibelius fan. And that's a good thing, since the standard cautionary note about "complete" editions is magnified in the case of Sibelius, whose reputation, with the exception of a lone string quartet, is built entirely on orchestral music.

Although Glenn Gould recorded Kyllikki and the piano sonatinas, must marquee concert pianists give Sibelius's piano works a pass. Partly this is because so many of his stylistic traits, like the long pedal points in the bass or the melodies scored for woodwinds in thirds, depend on access to sustained sounds and a broad timbral palette. There's also the perception that Sibelius just didn't put as much into his "salon" pieces as he did into his symphonies and tone poems. As a convinced Sibelian, though, I needed to hear for myself, so what follows is a diary of my journey through five CDs of generally unfamiliar music. The pianist throughout is Folke Gräsbeck.

Volume 4 goes in roughly chronological order, so Disk 1 comprises student works written in a generic late 19th Century style, with numerous composition exercises thrown in. The fate of the completist is manifest here, as though a Shakespeare fan would have to read through preserved Latin grammar exercises in a survey of the bard's complete works. Things start to get more interesting with Disk 2, as Sibelius enters his 20s. A short ternary Andantino in B major from 1888 is pretty, and might have been composed by a contemporaneous Russian composer. The brief Allegretto in B-flat minor that follows also stands out, and like many of these pieces, sounds like Grieg in places. Interestingly, the characteristic orchestral works of Sibelius's maturity rarely sound like Grieg, though the early ones, such as the First Symphony, clearly reflect the influence of Russian composers.

A nice "Moderato - Presto" in D minor sets off a slow, homophonic melody with a passage featuring triplet arpeggios against a staccato repeated note in the bass, perhaps anticipating the middle movement from Sibelius's Piano Sonata in F major (on Disk 3). A few more of the works from this time return us to the sound world of Grieg's Lyric Pieces (of which the Fourth Volume is contemporaneous). Examples include Sibelius's setting of Ellen Kackzell's "Oh, If you had Seen", which alternates solo piano with poetry recitations in Swedish by Lasse Pöysti. Pöysti also recites the texts in the similar Trånaden (Longing) from disk 1. A Vivace in D minor, also from 1888, likewise could have come from Grieg, as could the fourth movement of the Florestan suite (despite the title's reference to Schumann).

With Disk 3 we finally get into the realm of mature Sibelius. The Six impromptus, Op. 5 are the first works in the volume that bear an opus number, and these display a higher level of confidence than what we've heard thus far. In places they even sound like "real" Sibelius (to the extent that anything can sound like real Sibelius without the distinctive orchestration). I'm reminded of the later Humoresques for violin and orchestra. Next up is the first of several piano reductions of well-known orchestral works, this time of the first two movements of the Karelia suite, Op. 11. The Ballade shows some interesting departures from the orchestral version: lines missing, chord changes displaced by a couple of bars, etc. Do these represent an earlier version of the music before the final orchestral version was published? Next is the little-known Op. 12 piano sonata from 1893, whose first movement hints at the late-Romantic angst heard in the contemporaneous Kullervo (note that in 1891 Sibelius had attended a performance of the final version of Bruckner's Third Symphony). The slow movement has an up-tempo middle section centered on a folk-like tune (both the tune and this ternary structure point back to Grieg). The finale has a single great tune that wouldn't be out of place in the contemporaneous Lemminkäinen's Return, and which, like many of Sibelius's melodies from this period, shows the influence of traditional Finnish runic singing. You can hear a quintuple time example of this kind of singing on the Wikipedia page for The Kalevala.

Disk 4 includes the Op. 24 pieces, of which No. 9, a Romance in D-flat, is perhaps the most popular, though to me it seems more worthy of Rachmaninoff than Sibelius (and no, I didn't intend that as a compliment). Some of these pieces sound like Sibelius if you can imagine them with his distinctive orchestration, perhaps including a dissonant pedal point sustained by cellos and basses. Next up is the piano transcription of Finlandia. I've never much cared for this bombastic and repetitious piece, and am as frustrated by its position as Sibelius's most famous piece among casual listeners as I would be if most folks knew Beethoven only through Für Elise. Incredibly, it's even more bombastic in piano reduction than in its familiar orchestral guise. The way Sibelius translates some woodwind trills in the Allegro sections is interesting, though. Four movements from King Christian II are likewise presented in a piano version, as are some of the choral songs from Op. 31.

Disk 5 starts with some folksong settings, then continues to the non-descript Ten Bagatelles, Op. 34. The somewhat more successful Pensées Lyriques of Op. 40 follow. Since program notes aren't included in Amazon's MP3 downloads, I can't tell you why these pieces, written by a Finn and published by Breitkopf & Härtel, have a French title, but Sibelius did speak serviceable French. Kyllikki gets a spirited rendition by Gräsbeck. It's based on the Kalevala, though the middle movement has a distinctly Russian-sounding theme. Some further piano reductions of Valse Triste, The Dryad, and the Dance-Intermezzo from Op. 45 round out the album.

Gräsbeck and Bis are to be congratulated for their devotion to this project and Sibelius's music. By bringing the obscure corners of his output to light, anyone can assess the worth and historical position of all of his music. Gräsbeck seems secure in his playing, and if there's any criticism of the performances, it's that there's sometimes a lack of gradation. The Barcarole from Op. 24, for example, seems a bit crass to me, though in fairness to the pianist, these pieces generally lack the remarkable layering and subtlety that Sibelius's orchestration brings to his most beloved works. I haven't heard the competing recordings by Gisme and Servadei, but I'm not disappointed in the overall quality of Gräsbeck's interpretations. The MP3 transfers I downloaded seem fine. I've heard no distortion, aliasing or other errors.

To sum up, I think the conventional wisdom is probably right as regards Sibelius's piano music. It's not the caliber of Schumann's, Liszt's or even Grieg's music for that instrument, and none of the original works in this album are in same class as Sibelius's greatest orchestral music. Occasionally a work like the F major piano sonata will rise to the level of a second-tier orchestral work like the Karelia suite, and there are many catchy tunes lurking throughout as gems in the rough. Hearing a work like King Christian II in the composer's piano reduction is interesting in the way that looking at a black-and-white Rembrandt study for a color painting is interesting. I'm glad that I spent the time acquainting myself with this music, and if you're a completist or a Sibelius fan or scholar, then I'm sure you too will enjoy having it available, and picking out your favorites for repeated listening. But this is not an album for casual music lovers.
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