Notes and Editorial Reviews
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Piano Music II
Folke Gräsbeck (pn)
BIS CD-1927 (5 CDs: 346:27)
4 Lyric Pieces,
op. 75, “The Trees.”
op. 85, “The Flowers.”
8 Short Pieces,
5 Romantic Compositions,
5 Characteristic Impressions,
A Lonely Ski-Trail. 5 Esquisses,
Short pieces. Preliminary/alternative versions. Transcriptions:
Pelléas et Mélisande:
. Belshazzar’s Feast:
Pan and Echo. The Bells of Kallio Church. Scaramouche:
Suite mignonne. Suite champêtre. Suite caractéristique,
Volume 10 of BIS’s Sibelius Edition brings something of a surprise: BIS’s brochures had indicated that this volume would be devoted to choral music; instead, we get the completion of Folke Gräsbeck’s traversal of the solo piano music, which was begun in
Piano Music I,
Volume 4 of the edition (see
32:2). I contacted Andrew Barnett, the Sibelius Edition project advisor, to ask about the reason for the change, and he explained that, while both volumes involved many new recordings, BIS’s research on the choral volume had “revealed a larger number of unrecorded choral pieces than we had originally envisaged,” and moreover that several of these pieces required a good deal of “detective work” that resulted in a longer preparation time than had been anticipated. For example, BIS will include a reconstruction of the 1897 Helsinki University Graduation Cantata, a work most of which was thought to have been irretrievably lost. So, for collectors expecting the choral music now, the delay in fact represents good news!
The volume at hand, as it happens, comprises virtually all new recordings (i.e., 2007–09) as well; Gräsbeck had recorded several single CDs of solo piano music prior to the inception of the edition in 2007, but they consisted entirely of early works and their contents were incorporated in Volume 4. The present volume, organized chronologically, begins in 1905 and goes to the end of Sibelius’s career. As the headnote shows, Sibelius composed piano music steadily throughout the quarter-century or so represented here, almost entirely collections of shorter works; he also transcribed many of his orchestral works for piano, usually at the time of their composition or shortly thereafter. As with Volume 4, original compositions for piano make up approximately three-fifths of the music here, transcriptions (or, in some cases, piano versions of works Sibelius subsequently orchestrated) the rest.
Posterity has not been as kind to Sibelius’s piano music, of course, as it has to most of his other mature works. Barnett, who provides the informative notes as he has throughout the edition, goes so far as to include an “Apologia,” as well as to cite, and counter, some rather brutal criticisms of this repertoire. It is not hard to identify the elements that contribute most to the negative critical consensus; first, Sibelius was not a pianist, and his writing is often not very “pianistic”—as I have written in my reviews of earlier volumes of BIS’s edition, his early training was as a violinist, but of course his real métier was music for orchestra—and second, as Barnett acknowledges, in his piano music Sibelius is a “prolific miniaturist who produced short, often aphoristic pieces … throughout his career.” Almost all of Sibelius’s solo piano music consists of collections of pieces that are, on average, a couple minutes in length. Indeed, there are a total of 138 individual pieces or movements in this set, or about 28 per disc, so these recordings are best listened to one or two
at a time. (The handful of more extensive piano works, most prominently the Sonata in F Major, op. 12, are found in Volume 4.) Sibelius’s piano music also is often experimental; in many instances the piano works seem to be hinting at a new compositional style that emerges in full-blown fashion in the next major orchestral work.
“Aphoristic” is an apt term for the 10 Pieces, op. 58 (1909). Many of the pieces in this group are spare-textured and, in Barnett’s term, “impressionistic”; their austerity seems to be leading to the severe style of the Fourth Symphony (1911). The 1912 sonatinas and rondinos are equally concentrated, the former lasting only about six minutes apiece. The writing in opp. 74 and 75 (both 1914) seems more assured. Perhaps this is because the music is less abstract; each of the
, for example, has a descriptive title (e.g., “Soft West Wind” and “At the Dance”).
The 13 pieces that make up op. 76 were actually composed over a number of years, but most of them come from the period 1916–19, or the time of the Fifth Symphony. Even more brief than the pieces of opp. 58, 74, and 75, they are more idiomatically written for the piano, and several of them are fairly distinctive character pieces. The “flower” pieces of op. 85 (1916–17) are lighter than the preceding sets, although No. 3, “The Iris,” seems fundamentally unpianistic, and No. 5, “The Campanula,” is harmonically rather enigmatic.
Beginning with the op. 94 set, eight of Sibelius’s next 10 opus numbers are devoted to pieces either composed or arranged for piano. Most of them, composed between 1919 and 1924, are lighter in mood and, as Barnett says, “unpretentious”; even so, Sibelius’s individual style is more in evidence in op. 97 (1920), for example, than in most of the piano works of the preceding decade; the first and last of these are titled “Humoreske” I and II, and these pieces are in fact reminiscent of the superb
for violin and orchestra, opp. 87b and 89. In some of the op. 99 pieces (1922) one can hear the restrained but expressive language of the Sixth Symphony, which Sibelius was working on at the time, and the fuller, more chordal textures of op. 101 (1923–24) suggest the Seventh. The writing of op. 103, from the same years, is also more orchestrally conceived; the first piece uses a melody from the
of 1922, and the last is a funeral march in the “official” key of C Minor.
A Lonely Ski-Trail
(1925) and the op. 114
(1929) are among Sibelius’s last works. The former, a melodrama with piano, was arranged for speaker, harp, and strings in 1948, and in that form it appears in Volume 3; here, as there, it is read by the actor Lasse Pöysti. The latter, evoking some of the same spare textures as those of
(1926), represent to Barnett “the threshold of a radical new stylistic period” that may suggest the language of the illusory Eighth Symphony. Sibelius’s final work for piano was a four-hand Adagio “To My Beloved Aino” written for his wife’s 60th birthday in 1931; Gräsbeck is joined here by pianist Peter Lönnqvist. As a birthday tribute it’s a rather odd piece; as Barnett says, “It is almost devoid of melody as such, but the boldness of its tonal language is astonishing.”
The many transcriptions included here are folded in chronologically. There’s little to say about them; to anyone who knows the orchestral versions, they seem quite pale by comparison. One wonders whether Sibelius ever intended the piano versions of the suites for public performance, although I suppose their inclusion here is appropriate. (The fact that the five CDs sell for the price of three, and the requirement for absolute completeness established by BIS’s Robert von Bahr, help justify their presence.) The excerpts from
are noteworthy, since they were arranged while Sibelius was attempting to fashion an orchestral suite as he did for almost all of his theater scores; evidently this project was abandoned, though, when the
project, Sibelius’s most ambitious set of incidental music, came along.
As always, every aspect of the production of this set, from conception to performance (uniformly excellent) to sound quality (superb) to booklet notes (authoritative), is first-rate. This certainly isn’t the most urgent volume of the Sibelius Edition, but what BIS has done here will likely never again be done as thoroughly or as well. Remaining to be issued are the volume of music for choir discussed above, the symphonies, and a final volume including everything else that resisted assignment to an existing category. For anyone who’s been acquiring the volumes of this edition as they appear, I can’t imagine stopping now.
FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan
This is the second of two volumes of Sibelius’s piano music. It’s also the tenth volume in the intended complete works of Sibelius. It mixes transcriptions, original works and 14 premiere recordings. The first volume was reviewed here last year.
Bis report that as project completion glows on the horizon Sibelius scholars are intensifying their search for previously unknown material. Robert Von Bahr’s aim remains unshaken: to record ‘every note Sibelius ever wrote’. I wonder if they will be tempted to commission what is likely to be a highly speculative realisation of the Symphony No.8. In any event new manuscripts (not of the symphony) have been unearthed.
Revised preliminary release dates for the final volumes have been adjusted: These currently stand at: 11. Choir a cappella - Soloists, Jubilate Choir, Dominante Choir, YL Male Voice Choir and Orphei Drängar July 2010; 12. Symphonies (including fragments) Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä January 2011; 13. Miscellaneous (incl. organ works and the Masonic Music) Various August 2011.
Among the world première recordings in this box we find an
Adagio written for his wife Aino’s birthday in 1931, Sibelius’s last composition for piano – and his only one for piano four-hands. Included also are a number of Sibelius’s transcriptions, mainly of stage music. Among the curiosities is a four minute reworking for the piano of a bell melody written for use at a Helsinki church the building for which was completed in 1912.
In common with its predecessors this volume is in an over-width box in which the five discs and dumpy booklet with full annotation rattle around – the price of bulk purchase economies. A plain white sleeve with transparent window holds each disc. The cover design of the box is uniform with the other volumes. Those two swans, the morning lake and pine trees are by now iconic among Sibelians.
Less obvious perhaps is the well-judged sequence in which the Edition has been issued. The inevitably more commercially attractive orchestra and vocal sets have been alternated with the superficially less appealing chamber and piano solo formats; there is always something to look forward to.
The themed predecessor of this box, released as Volume 4 of the Edition, presented the piano music that Sibelius composed during his youth and in his national romantic period. No matter what the advocacy – and it is fine indeed - this must, rather like volume 1 of the piano works, be more for the fanatical Sibelian rather than the more generally enthusiastic listener.
CD 1 includes the
Pelleas suite in transcription by the composer. While the
Pastorale is delightful the limitations of the medium are patent with
At the Castle Gate.
Oriental Procession and the delicate
Khadra's Dance work but while you have the choice why listen ‘in monochrome’. The
Ten Pieces op. 58 from 1909 are vivid even if written as potboilers. The tramping
Scherzino is particularly good. Written to order for Breitkopf & Härtel they are little more than skilled traversals of the style models of the repertoire. Only the
Scherzino and the harmonic excursions of
Fisher Song are more than that … just a shade more.
CD 2 delivers pleasure in the a shape of the crystal glass and china of
Pan and Echo. The three
Sonatinas of 1912 are done and dusted, all three, in 18:21. Their generalised romanticism is pleasant but not striking though I did like the bell-chimes of the
Andantino of No. 2. Speaking of bells we hear the chime Sibelius wrote for Kallio church in 1912 - resonant and harmonically engaging. The
Scaramouche music is almost expressionist in its starkness.
Syringa is one of Sibelius's several Hispanic etched essays. I liked Gräsbeck's sensitive way with
The Soft West Wind, the second of the
Four Lyric Pieces of 1914.
The Trees, rather neatly recorded by Annette Servadei on a 5 CD Regis set, are a tender if low key sequences of which I liked the most touching
The Spruce. There are world premiere recordings here just as you would expect.
CD 3 starts with
Thirteen Pieces op. 76 which are from 1911-1918. The playful and unassuming
Romanzetta is a fair example. The frost-glazed
Capriccietto of 1914 is great fun - a candidate for pianola roll if ever I heard one.
The Daisy is the first of
Five Pieces op. 85.
The Flowers are like a counterpart to
The Trees (1916-17): light in contour and light in content – written to order. The
Nouvellette of 1914 is a flighty charmer from
Six Pieces op. 94.
The Two Pieces for Orcar Parviainen (1919) are world premieres. They break no barriers, push no boundaries; it’s – Grieg, Chopin and early Sibelius again.
CD 4 has its tracks once again in date order. The
Humoreske from the op. 97
Six Bagatelles (1920) is more probing but is the only one in the set that prods conventionality.
Suite Mignonne and
Suite Champêtre subsist on charm. They’re all nicely etched and Sibelius proves that he knows his models and can fill the templates time after time. Time and again one thinks this would not be the place for a potential Sibelian to start his or her expedition of discovery. Next the
Five Characteristic Impressions.
Of these the Beethovenian
The Storm resolutely closes its vocabulary to anything approaching
The Tempest. When we reach
The Tempest the music and the invention stand high beside the rest. Interesting that Sibelius chooses the least revolutionary of
The Tempest movements. This is a case, as with so much else here, of curiosity satisfied but your expectations need to be modestly set.
The fifth and final disc collects the last sparks and flames.
The Lonely Ski Trail with narration (familiar from an earlier box where played with orchestra) which for me elevates the atmosphere of the music like a spell. The unassuming
Five Esquisses are innocent miniatures within an accustomed idiom.
To my beloved Aino is for piano four hands which here enjoys its world premiere recording. It rises to
Great Gate of Kiev intensity vigorously belled out. In
mournful Mood (tr.18) attain considerable grandeur.
Song in the Forest (1929) is strange with its shuddering oddness. These last three items are well worth hearing.
There is nothing to compare with this series. It takes its place alongside such historic LP endeavours as Hungaroton’s complete Bartók, DG’s Beethoven Edition, Haydn’s symphonies (Philharmonia Hungarica), quartets (Aeolian) and sonatas (McCabe) from Decca and Philips’ complete Mozart. There’s very little here that is familiar apart from perhaps the Sonatinas and the music used in the stage transcriptions. True Sibelians will already have ordered the set and will not be disappointed. It maintains the standards of presentation, scholarship and occasional liberated delight attained by its predecessors.
– Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Pan and Echo, Op. 53 by Jean Sibelius
Folke Gräsbeck (Piano)
Written: 1906; Finland
Spagnuolo for Piano by Jean Sibelius
Folke Gräsbeck (Piano)
Written: 1913; Finland
Till Trånaden by Jean Sibelius
Folke Gräsbeck (Piano)
Written: 1887; Finland
Syringa [Op. 75 no 6] by Jean Sibelius
Folke Gräsbeck (Piano)
Written: 1914; Finland
Mandolinato for Piano by Jean Sibelius
Folke Gräsbeck (Piano)
Written: 1917; Finland
Con passione, JS 53 by Jean Sibelius
Folke Gräsbeck (Piano)
A Lonely Ski Trail by Jean Sibelius
Folke Gräsbeck (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1925/1948; Finland
Valse lyrique by Jean Sibelius
Folke Gräsbeck (Piano)
Written: 1919; Finland
Notes: Preliminary version of Op. 69a combining material from Syringa (1914) and Granen (1914).
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