SIBELIUS: Piano Music: Impromptu in B minor; Impromptu in E minor; Kyllikki, Op. 41; Romance in D-flat Major; Barcarolle; The Shepherd; Valse Triste; Sonatina No. 1 in F-sharp minor; Bjoeken; Graenen; Rondino; Elegiaco; 3 Bagatelles from Op. 97; 5 Esquiesses, Op. 114 – Leif Ove Andnes, piano – Sony 8985408502, 66:20 (9/1/17) ****:
Glenn Gould, in his March 1977 recording for CBS, revealed to us some of the lyric beauty Jean Sibelius imparted to his keyboard compositions, particularly the 1904 “Kyllikki” -Three Lyric Pieces for Piano, Op. 41. According to Gould, “Sibelius never wrote against the grain of the keyboard. … In Sibelius’ piano music everything works, everything sings – but on its own terms.” Gould concludes in positive terms: “Sibelius made a significant addition to the far too limited piano repertoire of late Romanticism.”
For Leif Ove Andnes, the Kylikki invite the element of folklore into the Sibelius sound-world: a declamatory, unison chant opens the first piece of the suite (Largamente – Allegro), named for the maiden abducted by Lemminkainen from the Kalevala saga. The tonality moves in potent octaves from B-flat Major in the Dorian mode to the restless key of C-sharp Major. The beginning motif, concluding Pesante, rather stormily transfigures the character of the motif. The second movement, Andantino, moves in melancholy, modal terms, alternating tenth chords in B-flat against the dominant pedal in F. The middle section assumes the mood a sad nocturne, with a kind of drooping “farewell” tune – directly from Beethoven’s Op. 81a – that rises momently, only to fall back into resignation. The last movement, Commodo, proffers a light, dance motif, a kind of Northern polka. The middle section Tranquillo takes us back to former seriousness of the first two sections. Andnes imposes a salon, rustic character to this movement, perhaps rendering the whole emotionally skewed.
The most familiar piece of the recital, the 1901 Romance in D-flat Major, Op. 24, No. 9, marked Andantino, has a Lisztian grace and studied passion – in cadenza form – about it. Andnes opens with two of the Six Impromptus, 1890-1893. Sibelius played a lute called a kantele, which could sound like a harp. The B minor Impromptu, the No. 5, sparkles with arpeggios that invoke Liszt’s waters and those of Ravel. The No. 6 in E Major, marked Commodo, lulls us in salon waltz that splices Schubert to Grieg. The second half sets the key in its minor mode. Adnes plays The Shepherd (1909) from the collection of ten pieces, Op. 58, a work that reflects Grieg but reduces the sound to an imitation of the French Baroque, set in D-flat Major and gravitating into its parallel C-sharp minor. The influence of Debussy’s Passepied from Suite Bergamasque has been noted. The ubiquitous Valse Triste, Op. 44, No. 1 (1903) has for this auditor, its best expression on records in its orchestral form, as directed by Hans Rosbaud and the Berlin Philharmonic. Its literary background concerns Paavali, at the bedside of his dying mother, who in a dream dances with death. As a mordant, impassioned salon waltz by Andnes, it has a rare intimacy and nostalgia.
In his more experimental, neo-Classsical sensibility, Sibelius conceives Three Sonatinas, Op. 67 (1912), of which Andnes plays No. 1 in F-sharp minor. The first movement Allegro consistently avoids the home key and hovers in C-sharp minor. The Largo enjoys a throaty melody that occurs twice. Its second appearance comes one octave higher than the original, now harmonized chorale-style. The last chord sits in F-sharp Major. The playfulness of the Allegro moderato seems to owe debts to Debussy and Ravel, with right hand tremolos we know from Images. Two episodes appear, one in G Major and the conclusion in F-sharp Major, which many times serves Liszt as a key of illumination.
The piece from the 1914 Op. 75, the No. 4 Bjoerken (“The Birch Tree”) celebrates the favorite tree of the Finns, proceeds Allegro as a modal (Mixolydian) pair of strophes in B-flat. The music closes Misterioso, a combination of A-flat and D-flat, again in the Mixolydian mode. Like its companion, Graenen (“The Spruce”), Op. 75, No. 5, the tree has a pantheistic bias that provides a depth beyond the notes. This “national tree” has political as well as aesthetic associations. Marked Lento – Risoluto – Lento, the piece offers a slow waltz decorated with lush arpeggios. The second of Sibelius’ two Rondinos, Op. 68, No. 2 is set in C-sharp minor, Vivace. The right hand plays tremolos in tenths, almost an etude by Paganini, within a lively polka rhythm, angularly inflected to sound much like Poulenc or Stravinsky. Among the composer’s “finest miniatures” (Erik Tawaststjerna), the Op. 76 Treize Morceaux present short, simple pieces, of which the No. 10 Elegiaco chosen by Andnes makes a sweet, liquid impression, redolent of a Debussy waltz, maybe even by Faure.
The set of Six Bagatelles (1920) meant to provide Sibelius with some quick income. The No. 5 Impromptu resonates with touches of Schumann; the No. 4 Humorous March fuses Beethoven with touches of Prokofiev. The last of this set, Lied, Op. 97, No. 2 (Andantino) pays simple and direct homage to Grieg. Andnes concludes with the 1929 5 Esquisses, Op. 114, so-called “Sketches” that bid farewell to the keyboard works. Each of the four makes a colorful, thoughtful pantheistic impression but in “modern” terms of harmony and structure that resemble Scriabin and Bartok. The Winter-Scene (No. 2) exploits two competing modes, Aeolian and Ionian, in A Major. Virtually each of the pieces invokes ninth chords, and The Song of the Woods (No. 4) sets two tritones in juxtaposition. The flexibility of Sibelius’ idiosyncratic harmony says goodbye in Spring Vision, in which E Major undergoes permutations in the Mixolydian and Ionian modes, topping off with a tritone on A-sharp. Doubtless, the composer’s notion of Mother Nature had her demonic sides which he accepted with deep affection.