SIBELIUS: Valse Triste, Op. 44:1 (2 versions); Impromptu in b, Op. 5:5; 10 Pieces, Op. 58; 5 Pieces, Op. 85; Five Pieces romantiques, Op. 101; Five Esquisses, Op. 114 – Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano – Triton stereo-only SACD 000117, 77:08 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Sibelius wrote piano music through the course of the composition of his symphonies, though he never expressed a real interest in the genre and the works themselves don’t sound anything like his orchestral music except for some snippets. On this release we get a sample of his first piano work (6 Impromptus Op. 5) and the last piece he wrote for piano, the Five Esquisses, created in 1929 at the insistence of an American publisher but not appearing until six years after the composer’s death.
The music is entertaining in the sense of Grieg’s piano music, nothing deep, and certainly nothing as beautifully conceived as Grieg’s, but interesting and attractive though I think you will find little of it memorable. When Sibelius admitted about the piano that “it does not interest me” early in his career, I think he was on to something, and even later when he felt better about the instrument he still never mastered the genre the way a skilled composer writing for the piano would. Those looking for the manifest glories of his symphonies and tone poems will be frustrated in their search—it simply is not here. But if you can accept that it is lesser music by a master composer that still retains some curiosity for an hour or so, this disc can be very rewarding.
Unless you are a diehard fan you won’t really need a lot of this, and there is no one I can think of more qualified to play this music than Ashkenazy. He has an affinity for the composer as his recordings of the symphonies attest, and his coloration and touch, especially when the composer is successful at bringing out some new combinations and key work that show his sometimes icy harmonies to good effect, are remarkable even now in his older age. I should mention that there are two recordings of Valse Triste (a work transcribed for piano after the string orchestra original) one in studio in Finland and the other on the Sibelius piano at his home, a fine sounding piano with a lot of color.
This is a hybrid SACD but stereo only, for some reason. But it sounds brilliant, an expressive recording that lacks a degree of warmth, appropriately I think for this music. Though the music is not the greatest, any collector worth his salt needs some of it, and I can’t think of any disc that betters this one. [In the Far East, surround sound is even less of an interest than in the West. Triton is a sub-label of Exton…Ed.]
— Steven Ritter