SIBELIUS Violin and Piano Music (complete) • Jaakko Kuusisto (vn);1 Madoka Sato (vn);2 Nils-Erik Sparf (vn);3Read more class="ARIAL12"> Folke Gräsbeck (pn);4 Bengt Forsberg (pn)3 • BIS 1915 (5 CDs: 363:26)
Violin Sonatas: in a;1,4 in F.1,4 Suites: in d;1,4 in E.1,4 Violin Concerto (2 versions, arr. Sibelius).2,4 2 Pieces, op. 2.3 Scaramouche: Scène d’amour.3 2 Serious Melodies, op. 77.3 4 Pieces, op. 78.3 6 Pieces, op. 79.3 Sonatina in E, op. 80.3 5 Pieces, op. 81.3 Novelette, op. 102.3 Danses champêtres, op. 106.2,4 4 Pieces, op. 115.3 3 Pieces, op. 116.3 Short pieces.1,2,4 Fragments.1,4 Solo Violin Works1,2
This box, comprising all the music Sibelius wrote for violin and piano, plus the handful of pieces for solo violin, is Volume 6 of BIS’s Sibelius Edition. In its overall content and organization it parallels Volumes 2 (Chamber Music I) and 4 (Piano Music I): it proceeds chronologically, beginning with student works and fragments, drawing on BIS’s previous releases in the series and adding newly recorded material where necessary. The present volume also has three appendices: the complete works for solo violin, totaling only about nine minutes; alternate versions of works that Sibelius revised or that exist in preliminary form (these include the op. 2 pieces, the Romance, op. 78/2, and an unnamed early work); and finally, fragments and ossia for the Violin Concerto (i.e., alternative parts, such as a simplified solo part for four measures of the finale).
The violin, of course, was Sibelius’s instrument; he aspired to a career as a soloist, but determined on reaching adulthood that he didn’t have the requisite technical mastery. Sibelius composed music for violin and piano throughout his career, although mostly in three discrete periods. The first, as with the piano and chamber music, encompasses music written during his student years and early compositions that, with one exception, lack opus numbers. This period spans roughly the dates 1883–91. The second consists of music written during World War I and the Finnish Revolution of 1918, when Sibelius could not collect royalties from international performances of his works and was constrained to work on a small scale for domestic publication; this explains the fact that five consecutive opus numbers belong to works for violin and piano. Finally, there are pieces written in 1924–25 (op. 106) and 1929 (opp. 115–16), the latter in response to a request from the New York publisher Carl Fischer. These were among Sibelius’s final works; op. 117, his last opus number, was assigned retroactively to a Suite for Violin and Strings, also composed in 1929. The volume also includes a disc devoted to the original and revised versions of the Violin Concerto, in piano reductions by the composer. (The piano part for the original version is incomplete; it was reconstructed by composer Kalevi Aho.)
The early works, about two discs’ worth, are mostly played by the Finnish violinist Jaakko Kuusisto, with pianist Folke Gräsbeck, the anchor of BIS’s project in all the piano and chamber music. These include the two sonatas and two suites; the Sonata in A Minor (1884) is unmistakably a student work, while the Suite in D Minor (1887–88) is more distinctive in character, and more idiomatically written for the violin. The Suite in E Major (1888) and Sonata in F Major (1889) are well wrought, the Suite being particularly flashy, but rarely hint at Sibelius’s mature musical style. Kuusisto plays beautifully, with a wonderful, pure sound and plenty of technique; naturally, he and Gräsbeck are beautifully recorded.
The thankless job of playing the Concerto with piano accompaniment—in two versions, no less—falls to the young Japanese violinist Madoka Sato, who also plays a handful of shorter works and fragments. The Concerto naturally features the most difficult violin-writing in the volume, and her playing is completely exposed in the reductions for violin and piano; if anything, the original version (recorded for BIS by Leonidas Kavakos—doubtless to appear in the forthcoming “Orchestral Works” volume) is even more fiendish than the final version. Sato does a fine job with the solo part, but the music is so orchestrally conceived that performance of the reduction really sounds unsatisfactory, despite Gräsbeck’s fine effort; the climax of the second movement badly misses the sustaining power of the winds, and the motoric energy of the strings at the opening and throughout much of the finale is lost. Even so, the set (as is true of all the previous volumes as well) is being sold for the price of three discs, so the Concerto disc can be regarded as a freebie.
All the original music for violin and piano with opus numbers was recorded by Sparf and Forsberg in 1991 and 1993; BIS has redone the Danses champêtres with Sato and Gräsbeck, and that is the version given in the present set. Sparf, too, is an excellent violinist, although I don’t find his playing as beautiful as Kuusisto’s. The Serious Melodies also exist in orchestral versions, which, as always in Sibelius, are more effective. The opp. 78 and 79 collections feature some relatively well-known pieces, and are more characteristic of the mature Sibelius’s style than the early works, even though they can be described essentially as classy salon music. The Sonatina hints strongly at the style of The Oceanides. Of the op. 81 pieces, interestingly all in D (Major or Minor), suggesting a cycle or suite, the first was later reworked as one of the marvelous Humoresques for violin and orchestra; the fourth piece, “Aubade,” is more flamboyant, with an interesting use of pizzicato multiple-stops along with rolled chords in the piano.
The Danses champêtres, written while Sibelius was trying to find his compositional sense of direction after the completion of the Seventh Symphony, are generally extroverted and hint at the music for The Tempest that followed. The final two sets inhabit an entirely new sound world; there is nothing of the salon about them, and in contrast to the wartime pieces, several are quite technically difficult.
Overall, compared to the solo piano music, the violin/piano works are written with the greater degree of assuredness that comes from writing for one’s own instrument. The most important music in this set is that performed by Sparf and Forsberg; if you already have the two single discs of these performances, they may satisfy. On the other hand, there is much attractive music in the early works, and Kuusisto’s playing is not to be missed. The booklet includes the usual five-language notes of Sibelius authority (and project advisor) Andrew Barnett, and the sound is superb as always. By now practically all collectors must know whether they are in this for the long haul; violinists and violin mavens will make some very pleasant discoveries here. This set gets my usual strong recommendation.
FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan
At five discs for the price of three, this set is a bargain--but then it has to be; there's a lot of fluff here. The early sonatas in A minor and F major and the two suites are substantial if uncharacteristic, while the Sonatina in E major is a minor masterwork of the composer's full maturity. The rest is charming, tuneful, and mostly not great Sibelius. You even get two versions of the Violin Concerto with piano accompaniment, the original and revised scores. Let's face it, there's probably no sound in all of orchestral music less suited to the piano than the opening of the Violin Concerto (a soft violin tremolando). I have nothing but praise, though, for Madoka Sato's assumption of the solo parts. Indeed, all of the performances are excellent, and Sibelius completists will need no further encouragement from me. I can easily see concert violinists looking for some unusual encore material finding some interesting goodies here. Great sonics.