“Fluvial” = SIBELIUS: Four Lyric Pieces; RAVEL: Jeux d’eau; BYSTRÖM: Air russe varié in g; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A – Anna Kuvaja, p. – Alba

“Fluvial” = SIBELIUS: Four Lyric Pieces, Op. 74; RAVEL: Jeux d’eau; THOMAS BYSTRÖM: Air russe varié in G Minor; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959 – Anna Kuvaja, p. – Alba multichannel SACD ABCD 386, 70:53 [Distr. by Albany] (7/29/16) ****:

Half of the music on this recital is new to me. Perhaps it will be to you as well.

I usually enjoy recital albums such as this for their variety but even more because they usually introduce me to unfamiliar music and composers. That’s certainly the case here. Thomas Byström (1772‒1839) is a new name to me, and I suspect it will be to you as well. Two years younger than Beethoven, the Finnish composer outlived the German master by twelve years. But despite a relatively long and productive career as a composer, he is scantly represented on recordings.

Interestingly, Byström relocated to Stockholm and served as an officer in the Swedish army, fighting in the Napoleonic Wars and Finnish Wars of 1808‒09. He was a member of the Swedish Music Academy and taught piano as well as organ at the Institute of the Academy for a number of years. Byström is said to have produced three fine violin sonatas; maybe someday I’ll get around to hearing them. While Byström’s Air russe varié is as new to me as the composer himself, there’s actually another recording in the catalog. I haven’t heard it, of course, but I can’t imagine it features a better performance than the present one. Written in 1798‒99, the work falls between the stools of late Haydn and middle Beethoven, having some of the virtuosity and drama of Ludwig’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 34, of 1802. However, it reminds me more of Schumann’s Études Symphoniques. There’s the same sort of balance between darkness and light, both young composers (Byström 27, Schumann 24) choosing a rather somber, quiet theme but injecting their music with excursions into brighter harmonic realms. However, Byström’s composition is a more modest creation, lasting a mere twelve minutes, less than half the length of Schumann’s masterpiece. Still, I’m very happy to have gotten to know the Finnish composer’s fine little work.

The other score that’s new to me, the Four Lyric Pieces, is probably not new to Sibelius enthusiasts. It’s very mature Sibelius, having been written in 1915. Without reading a word about the work, I was reminded of the composer’s Oceanides, and sure enough it was written in the same year. Though it’s a rather light series of character pieces, it’s elevated by the same harmonic adventurousness you hear in compositions from this period in Sibelius’s career, falling between the even more adventurous Fourth Symphony and the magnificent Fifth. For me, Four Lyric Pieces is less of a discovery than Byström’s work, but I’m happy to get to know it in what seems so finely spun a performance.

With the Ravel and Schubert we’re on entirely familiar ground. As Anna Kuvaja remarks in the introduction to her program notes, there’s a connection between the Sibelius, with its impressionistic soundscape, and Ravel’s watery music. I appreciate the tie-in, as well as Kuvaja’s sensitive playing of the Frenchman’s gentle score.

For most listeners, Schubert’s two final piano sonatas are the pinnacle of his achievement in this genre, and I think that of the two I prefer the penultimate Sonata in A Major. Schubert’s last, the Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960, is more ethereal, even otherworldly, but I admire the confident, bravura quality of the A Major Sonata. For me, the slow movement, with its wrenching minor-key central episode, is more moving than that in the B-flat Major, and I find the finale eminently satisfying as well. Here, Schubert recycles the main theme from the slow movement of his earlier Sonata in D Minor, D. 537, a sweetly lyrical melody that’s pure Schubert. Ah, but what he does with this theme! The permutations, combinations, and modulations he puts it through show how much he’d progressed as a composer since D. 537 of 1817. In the coda, in fact, Schubert just about atomizes his lovely tune before he reaches the brilliant final measures of the work, with their ghost of a reference to the first movement’s chief melody.

Anna Kuvaja has all the virtuosity needed to serve up this most virtuosic of Schubert’s sonatas, as well as a clear understanding of the Schubert idiom, even if her reading is a little more genial and relaxed than some I’ve heard. She’s obviously put much thought into crafting the program of this her debut album; both the program and the performances are a fine tribute to her musicianship. Beautifully resonant sound from Alba as well. Warmly recommended!

—Lee Passarella

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