BIS, the enterprising Scandinavian label, has now reached
volume 59 in their complete Sibelius series. For the ‘Complete
Piano Music’, BIS have used versions from the major collection
of manuscripts that the Sibelius family donated in 1982
to the Helsinki University Library. The collection has
revealed Sibelius’s output in the genre of the piano to
be far richer and more extensive than was first realised.
BIS claim that eleven of the sixteen piano works are world
Some of the works on this release will be familiar to many
music lovers, although not in this piano form. The programme
Sibelius’s own transcriptions from the Karelia Suite and The
Wood-Nymph. The existence of several of the scores,
including the Marche Triste, have only come to light
after detailed cataloguing of the donated manuscripts.
This chosen programme provides invaluable insights into
the Finnish master’s creative genius.
The sixteen works are all of an extremely short duration with the
exception of the Six Impromptus, Op.5, the two pieces
from the Karelia Suite, Op. 11 and the Piano
Sonata in F major, Op.12. In their entirety the Six
Impromptus from 1893 are a worthy pianistic pendant
to Kullervo, the symphonic poem for soloists,
chorus and orchestra. The Impromptus were
described by Sibelius biographer Guy Rickards as, “One
of his most charming sets of piano pieces.” The fifth
is a popular work in its own right, described as, “the
shining jewel of the set” and is in the repertoire
of most Finnish pianists.
From his famous Karelia Suite for orchestra, Op. 11 (1893-94)
Sibelius arranged the first two movements; the Intermezzo and
the Ballade for piano in 1897. The pair are Sibelius’s
first opus numbered piano transcriptions. Some readers
will undoubtedly remember the orchestral version of the Intermezzo being
used for many years as the theme tune to the long running
UK ITV current affairs programme This Week. Sibelius
composed his Piano Sonata in F major, Op.12 in 1893. It
is one of his major works of Kalevala Romanticism, yet
unaccountably is one of his most neglected pieces. The F
major score serves as a culmination of Sibelius’s roughly
forty youthful piano pieces.
Folke Gräsbeck is a specialist in the piano music and chamber works
of Sibelius and is well represented in the BIS catalogue.
Gräsbeck studied the piano under Tarmo Huovinen at the
Turku Conservatory (1962-74) and won first prize in the
Maj Lind Competition in 1973. He was taught privately in
London by Maria Curcio-Diamond and also studied under Prof.
Erik T. Tawaststjerna at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki
and was made a Master of Music there in 1997. Gräsbeck
has performed more than 200 of Sibelius’s 550 or so compositions
and has given world première performances of 82 of them.
Gräsbeck was the first pianist to give a recital at the
new Sibelius Hall in Lahti in 2000 where he performed a
programme exclusively devoted to Sibelius piano music premières.
His Sibelius repertoire also includes the Piano Quintet
in G minor, the Piano Quartets and the complete
works for Piano Trio. In 1996 he was awarded the
medal of Sibelius’s Birthplace in Hämeenlinna.
Gräsbeck proves himself an expert exponent in these piano scores with
playing that does not discriminate between serious works
of a more substantial nature and brief, lighter-veined
pieces. Throughout he displays remarkable technical prowess
with a striking refinement of musicianship. His Steinway
D instrument has a consistently delightful timbre. Gräsbeck’s
interpretations feel remarkably fresh and direct. His playing
of the D flat major Waltz makes the listener want
to dance. I loved the way he communicates the tension and
drama in the G minor Allegro.
From the Karelia Suite, the popular and stirring march-like Intermezzo is
performed with character and vigour and in the Ballade Gräsbeck
blends careful thought with emotional depth. I was especially
impressed with his remarkable array of colours and natural
response to the contrasting moods of the F major Sonata; a
strong work that deserves to be heard by a wider audience.
There were occasions when I detected a certain constraint
to the playing, when it would have been more interpretatively
to have loosened the inhibitions. Although Gräsbeck describes
the Allegretto in F minor in the notes as, “a
dreamy lyrical minuet that displays a sort of dreamy neo-rococo
style” I felt that the piece came over as rather stilted
and was crying out for additional pace and spirit. I would
apply the same viewpoint to the B flat major Menuetto where
a touch more buoyancy to the performance would have been
The recorded sound from the BIS engineers is well balanced, clear
and detailed and the liner notes, written by the soloist,
are of a high standard. BIS are to be congratulated for
providing a generous playing time of eighty minutes. Sibelius
lovers will surely relish this lovingly performed release.
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