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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Complete Piano Music
CD 1
Ten Piano Pieces op. 24 (1894-1903)
Six Impromptus op. 5 (1893)
Ten Bagatelles op. 34 (1913-16)
CD 2
Valse Triste op. 44 (1903)
Spagnuolo (1913)
Till tranaden (1913)
Mandolinato (1917)
Morceau Romantique (1925)
Kavaljeren (1900)
CD 3
Pensée Lyriques op. 40 (1912-14)
Six Finnish Folk Songs (1903)
Ten Piano Pieces op. 58 (1909)
CD 4
Piano Sonata in F major op. 12 (1893)
Kylliki (Three Lyric Pieces) op. 41 (1904)
Three Sonatinas op. 67 (F sharp minor, E major, B flat major) (1912)
Two Rondinos op. 68 (1912)
Four Lyric Pieces op. 74
CD 5
Kallion Kirkon Kellozavel op. 65 (1912)
Five Pieces for piano (The Trees) op. 75 (1915)
Thirteen Pieces for piano op. 76 (1911-16)
Five Pieces for piano (The Flowers) op.85 (1916-17)
Six Pieces for piano op. 94 (1919-20)
Six Bagatelles op. 97
Valse Lyrique op. 96a (1919-20)
Autrefois op. 96b (1919-20)
Valse Chevaleresque op. 96c (1919-20)
Eight Petits Morceaux op. 99 (1922)
Cinq Morceaux Romantique op. 101 (1923)
Five Characteristic Inpressions op. 103 (1923-24)
Five Esquisses op. 114 (1929)
Finlandia op. 26 (1899-1900).
Annette Servadei (piano)
rec. April 1992 (1), July-August 1992 (2) Christ's Hospital, Horsham (CD1, 2); April 1993 (3), February 1994 (4), July 1994 (5), St George's Brandon Hill, Bristol (CD3, 4, 5). DDD
ALTO ALC 5001 [5 CDs: 69:31 + 70:13 + 71:21 + 66:28 + 73:41] 


Experience Classicsonline

I remember as a student in Bristol in 1971 reading Harold Johnson's and Robert Layton’s Sibelius biographies and wondering about all those piano solos listed in the appendices. These discs provide the opportunity to hear this very music as an intégrale.

Last year (2007) saw the passage of the fiftieth year since the death of Sibelius. As a biographical full stop it could hardly be more important yet Sibelius's creative voice and confidence had to all intents and purposes stilled in the mid-1920s. 

While Bis dwarf every other Sibelian endeavour in 2007 with their colossal and irresistible Sibelius Edition we must not neglect the work of other companies including the ever enterprising Regis on whose Alto label has issued this 5 CD set. While Bis, Folke Grasbeck and Erik Tawastjerna will no doubt find other Sibelius piano works to undermine the "Sibelius Complete Piano Music" claim, this set deserves very serious attention. It has about it nothing of the dusty dissertation. This is surely down to Annette Servadei who makes each of these demeaned pieces glow with fresh recreative energy, colour and rhythm. She achieves this across 351:14 minutes and 142 individually tracked pieces of music grouped into sets, suites, sonatas and sonatinas. Originally these were recorded by John Taylor for Olympia who issued them separately on five OCD discs. 

The five discs are presented here in a light card slip-case. Inside are fitted three single-width jewel cases: a single disc set and two double discers. All the detailed notes by Servadei and by Bill and Gill Newman and Lindsay Bridgewater are in the booklet with the first CD - the single disc one. The inserts for sets 2 and 3 simply list the tracks on each of their two discs. 

Servadei's freshness in this often modest repertoire achieves magical results. Examples are legion. Take the Andantino of op. 24 in which her warmly crystalline playing is miraculous. The Impromptu from op. 24 is worthy to stand with the darker solo piano works of Manuel de Falla. The Romance from op. 24 sets out its wares in grand style - casting admiring glances towards the Chopin and Medtner Ballades. The Lisztian cascades of the Fifth of the op. 5 Impromptus are nicely decorative with no pretensions to profundity. Many of the op. 34 Bagatelles are more classical and decorative-decorous salon effusions - always good-hearted and not cheap or showy. 

Just occasionally one is brought up short as in CD 2. Valse Triste is familiar fare from its orchestral format. As with everything else Servadei articulates the Valse with slowly glittering integrity and touching effect although even she is not able to overcome the congestion of its louder final pages. The Spagnuolo sounds rather unfinished and its abrupt ending is memorable. Mandolinato is a nice little trotting piece of grotesquerie as also is Kavaljeren. 

There is a rather gentle, nostalgic and haltingly hesitant Valsette as the first piece of the op 40 Pensées Lyriques which otherwise stay within the pleasant bounds of sub-Chopin salon. After these inoffensive pieces there is a little more ingenuity in the Six Finnish Folk Songs. The strongest individuality is asserted in Velisurmaaja which unlike much else in these sets actually sounds somewhat like the Sibelius we know. 

The Ten Piano Pieces op. 58 started with a Pierrot-cold Reverie marbled with hints of expressionism. The sprightly Scherzino sounds characteristic of the composer. The German titles with which this sequence is interspersed speak of the publisher's and the composers' hopes to find sales in German homes but there are French titles too. 

On CD3 the Sonata op. 12 is from 1893 - another early work. Its tendency towards bass deep Lisztian arpeggiation recalls the Liszt sonata and Gnomenreigen.

On CD4 the carillon piece (tr. 1) Sibelius wrote for the bell tower of the Berghäll church combines joyful bell sounds with hymnal devotion. This carillon character carries over into the Lonely Pine in the suite The Trees op. 75 (tr.3). The happy Birch Tree is redolent of Grieg's Lyric Pieces while the final The Spruce (tr. 6) is slightly reminiscent of Valse Triste but nowhere near as melancholy. The following Thirteen Pieces are again largely modest fare although the Carillon movement is something more with its hesitant and liquidly feminine charm. The delicate Romanzetta is similarly touching, having a rippling gentle character. The Flowers suite is in five charming movements with the finest being the plangent Campanula (tr. 24). 

The Six Pieces op. 94 are more of the same but here there is the range of emotion and character to be found in op. 76. The shining Sonnet (tr. 27) is a pleasing example. The Op. 97 Six Bagatelles include an impish Humorischter Marsch with some nice discords along the way. 

The first three pieces also exist in orchestral versions. Each is nostalgic and painted in pastel shades with no deep emotional reach. They may well be known to you from the Charles Groves RLPO recordings issued circ 1977 and which, two or three years ago, reappeared on an EMI Classics mid-price double. From the op. 99 Petits Morceaux both the Chopin-hesitant Souvenir and the Moment de valse are gently prominent and engaging. 

The Cinq Morceaux romantiques include a fine and wanly passionate Romance. The Scène lyrique and the Scène romantique have a real and in this context rare Sibelian accent. Humoresque includes some intriguing dissonances. 

The Village Church is the first of the Five Characteristic Impressions and uses progressions which instantly establish links with Finlandia. In Mournful Mood (tr. 21) again deploys adventurous dissonances for this short and fleetingly angry funeral processional. 

The Five Esquisses op. 114 include Metsalaulu with its arpeggiated liquid-lapping figure reminiscent of similar piano writing by Bax in his Winter Legends. It's all fairly modest stuff - less exalted than we are lead to expect by the liner-notes. 

Finally the piano version of Finlandia grumbles, blazes, barks and protests in defiance from the nether realms. It's a major work-out for any concert grand let alone for the pianist and Servadei gives it everything she has ... which is a lot. One can imagine this work also suiting Ronald Stevenson and being well attuned to the towering virtuosity and philosophical interests of John Ogdon had he ever discovered it. This works much better than the piano arrangement of Valse Triste mentioned earlier. 

Rewarding music-making then but unassuming and not earth-shatteringly original or intense. If you appreciate Grieg's Lyric Pieces or the gentle piano solos of Peterson-Berger, Madetoja or Palmgren then you must explore this repertoire.

Many of these pieces may have been written to keep Sibelius in cigars and hold the creditors at bay. Composers have to live and support their families as well. However the music is none the worse for that; just don't expect the crown jewels. There are gems tucked away here and there and much else that is unassumingly pleasing.

Rob Barnett


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