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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.