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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Piano Music, Volume 4

Four Lyric Pieces, Op.74 (1914)
1. Ekloge (Eclogue)
2. Sanfter Westwind (Gentle West Wind)
3. Auf dem Tanzvergnügen (The Pleasures of the Dance)
4. Im alten Heim (In the Old Home)
Five Pieces, Op.75 (The Trees – 1914)
5. När rönnen blommar (When the rowan blossoms)
6. Den ensamna furan (The Lonely Fir)
7. Aspen
8. Björken (The Birch)
9. Granen (The Spruce)
Thirteen Pieces, Op.76 (1911-1916)
10. Esquisse
11. Etude
12. Carillon
13. Humoresque
14. Consolation
15. Romanzetta
16. Affettuoso
17. Pièce enfantine
18. Arabesque
19. Elegiaco
20. Linnaea (Twinflower of the North)
21. Capriccietto
22. Harlequinade
Five Pieces, Op.85 (The Flowers – 1916/17)
23. Bellis
24. Oeillet (Carnation)
25. Iris
26. Aquileja (Aquilegia)
27. Campanula
Six Pieces, Op.94 (1919)
28. Danse
29. Nouvellette
30. Sonnet
31. Berger et bergerette (Shepherd and Shepherdess)
32. Mélodie
33. Gavotte
Håvard Gimse, piano
Recorded at St. Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, UK, November 2000
NAXOS 8.555363 [62:11]

Comparisons: Mustonen/Ondine, Viitasalo/Finlandia

Revered for his symphonies, tone poems, and orchestral songs, the piano music of Jean Sibelius gets little recognition except for the occasional recording. Prevailing opinion is that his piano works are not idiomatic of the instrument and possess only a small amount of the inspiration that went into his orchestral compositions. After all, Sibelius only wrote for solo piano to pay the bills. His primary focus was on larger scale works.

I find his piano music to exhibit a wide range of quality and inspiration. The lesser pieces give off a flavor of medicore and repetitive salon music, but his best pieces are quite compelling, interesting and memorable. What can’t be discovered in the Sibelius miniatures is a wealth of diversity packed into two minutes of music. Bach or Chopin routinely would offer up miniatures with such breadth of themes and construction that each constituted an entire world. A Sibelius miniature provides only a tiny slice of life.

The disc at hand is Volume 4 of Håvard Gimse’s traversal of the Sibelius solo piano works. Gimse, born in 1966, has won a number of piano competitions and played with the major orchestras of Europe. His discography includes the music of Grieg, Martinů, Mozart and Tveitt. In addition to recording for Naxos, Gimse has been associated with Intim, Simax, Virgin Classics and Chandos.

Gimse delivers very attractive readings that are warm, poetic and user-friendly. Actually, you won’t find more affectionate performances on disc. There is a trade-off in his approach in that the interpretations could be more exuberant and also more cognizant of the occasional modernist appeal of the music.

Gimse opens Volume 4 with the "Four Lyric Pieces" which have little in their favor other than their lyricism. Each has an attractive primary theme, but development is thin and entails much repetition. Further, attempts at additional themes are largely unsuccessful and carry excessive baggage from the primary theme. It adds up to rather drab listening.

Fortunately, there is nothing drab about the "Five Pieces" Op.75, a homage to five different varieties of trees. These are absolute gems that retain my attention after many hearings. Although not displaying any significant contrast, each piece is expertly constructed with engrossing melodies and rhythms that are not soon forgotten. "When the rowan blossoms" is exquisite music of a melancholy and questioning nature that sparkles throughout. "Aspen" has a child-like innocence wrapped in mystery, and "The Birch" is an exuberant piece still retaining an element of the unknown. My favorite of the set is "The Spruce" with its contrasting waltz rhythms and suspensions.

I think highly of the Opus 75 performances by Marita Viitasalo on a Finlandia disc. In contrast to Gimse, she highlights the harmonic twists in "When the rowan blossoms", making the piece more interesting. Generally, her articulation is cleaner than Gimse’s as well. However, she is cooler and a little distant from the music.

The "Thirteen Pieces" of Opus 76 are shorter in length than for Opus 75, and issues of diversity become moot. With little exception, these pieces are among Sibelius’s most enjoyable. They flow beautifully and express human urges, regret and triumph. Sibelius also injects a delightful improvisation into a few of the works.

Comparing the Opus 76 performances of Gimse to Mustonen is illuminating. Gimse continues to offer excellent readings with an enticing blend of warmth and mystery. Mustonen brings this music to life with tremendous projection, exacting detail and an incisive virility and exuberance. Though there might be some merit in the view that Mustonen’s readings are ‘larger than life’, I am smitten with them. Ultimately, I think it is fair to say that Mustonen gives us a Sibelius who opens his heart for public consumption, while Gimse’s Sibelius wants to entice us with the mystery of life.

The Op. 85 pieces are a good example of the variable quality of Sibelius’s piano music. Three of the pieces sparkle with delight, but the modest musical material that Sibelius brings to "Iris" cannot support its three minute length. The last piece, "Campanula", is overly repetitive with an impressionistic doodling that ventures nowhere. Regardless of the music’s quality, each piece cries out for warmth that is a feature playing into Gimse’s strengths. Viitasalo’s cooler interpretations of these floral miniatures gives them the kiss of impending winter.

Gimse concludes his program with the Op. 94 pieces. Except for "Danse" which is an invigorating waltz, most of the set’s music tends to be either maudlin or lounge-type in nature.

In summary, recordings of the Sibelius piano miniatures have a low priority in relationship to his orchestral works. Some of the pieces transcend the mundane. It is clear that Sibelius had utilitarian reasons for composing this music. Piano enthusiasts would likely derive more pleasure from the listening experience than Sibelius fans, because his piano music bears little resemblance to his more popular compositions.

For those who remain interested in Sibelius piano discs, Gimse’s Naxos series is a fine choice. The price tag is low, and he offers affectionate interpretations in rich and clear sound. My best advice is to gravitate toward Mustonen who lifts the piano music of Sibelius to a higher plane.

Don Satz

See also review by Christopher Howell



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