Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op.43 (1902) [45:21]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major (1917) [31:44]
Henri Sigfridsson (piano)
rec. Järvenpää Hall, Finland, 4, 6 October 2010 (No.5) and 19 February, 15 March 2011 (No.2)
ONDINE ODE 1179-2 [77:15]
Symphonies by Sibelius for piano solo? There can’t be many composers you could imagine being less suitable for such treatment, such is the richness and colour of Sibelius’s orchestration; an aspect which is part of the very essence of these pieces. Indeed, the booklet notes are headed ‘The art of the impossible’, and go on to mention how important orchestration was to Sibelius: “My music comes to me fully orchestrated. Orchestration as a separate process is completely alien to me.”
Henri Sigfridsson is known for exploring less familiar composers and more unusual musical byways, so it’s not such a surprise to see his name attached to such a venture. Inspired by Karl Ekman’s transcription of the Symphony No.5, it is Sigfridsson’s own brand new piano version of the Symphony No.2 we hear on this CD, and very intriguing it is too.
The booklet describes how the pianist has “followed in the tradition of Liszt’s Beethoven transcriptions, writing a version which is faithful to the original yet exploits the potential of the piano…” What else, indeed. The problem is always of what to leave out, as much as how to transform an orchestral piece into an effective work for piano solo. In my view, it’s better to listen in these terms, rather than point-score as to whether one moment has more or less impact from a full orchestra or a solo piano. In other words, the symphony almost becomes a new piece, and the question becomes more one of ‘is this a good work for piano?’ rather than ‘does this symphony sound good on a piano?’
Having said this, there can me no doubt that the composer in me would be itching to ‘orchestrate’ such a work were it, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, to have been written as a piano original. There is a good deal of repetition, sustains achieved through tremuli, certain passages which become over-long and static through lack of contrast in atmosphere and that sense of tension you can achieve with orchestral effects. I was perhaps expecting to be less impressed by the great Symphony No.2 on piano, but I have been more than pleasantly surprised at how effective a piano piece it makes. Sibelius’s work is full of rich themes and intensely gorgeous harmonic progressions, and the piano has a way of exposing and clarifying ideas – letting them speak with a voice of absolute honesty, rather than having our ears swept along with the even richer diet of the full orchestra. The first movement works well in this regard. The opening of the second movement is more problematic, with voices diving and rising through textures through which the unity of piano strings is not ideal. What we do hear is more how Sibelius is working with a kind of counterpoint which reminds me of late Beethoven – deaf and a trifle manic, but still carrying great power. As the texture thins we have that clarity once again, and Sibelius’s monumental gathering and releasing of energy is done well by Sigfridsson. The Finale is a romantic tour de force, and would probably sound good on a barrel-organ let alone a full concert grand. Not only are the thematic developments given absolute clarity, but the sheer architecture of this movement is something at which we can stand and boggle in this performance. Having it played by a single performer gives the music an extra element of heroism which is quite moving.
The Symphony No.2 is rightly famous, and, while the Symphony No.5 is equally powerful its less overt thematic character is more of a problem for popular audiences. The task of transcription is also a great challenge, and pianist and friend of Sibelius Karl Ekman’s version was made in 1922. Karl Ekman’s wife Ida was a renowned singer and interpreter of Sibelius, and his son wrote a well-known biography of the composer. Some elements which were omitted by Ekman due to technical considerations have been filled out by Henri Sigfridsson, so this is in effect a new ‘edition’. The only other recordings of piano transcriptions of Sibelius symphonies I could find were those by the composer himself of parts of the Symphony No.1 as part of the BIS label’s complete edition. As far as I can tell this is a world premičre recording.
Given the more enigmatic nature of the music with the 5th symphony as compared to the 2nd, I actually prefer it as music for piano to the Symphony No.2. The quality of the piece generates a work which asks as many questions as it delivers answers, and the atmosphere is at times one which possesses a kind of quirkiness which reminds me of Janáček. Again, there are passages which linger perhaps a little too long to be sustained by piano alone, but there is always yet another fascinating event just around the corner, and I really found myself listening to the Symphony No.5 as if discovering it for the first time. The final Allegro molto becomes a real white-knuckle ride, the layering of textures turning into something rather awesome. Given the technical problems and demands it is perhaps something of a wonder that Ekman didn’t write for four-hands in this piece, but this solo performance is one with stretches the performer to extreme limits, and while it’s not a catch-all version of Sibelius’s remarkable music it is certainly something at which us mere mortals can gasp. Henri Sigfridsson’s technique is well up to the challenge while not sounding entirely effortless as you might expect. The heroic aspect is present and heightened, and the final section should have you tearing up the soft furnishings with excitement.
So, if you are a fan of Sibelius – I mean a real genuine warts-and-all fan – then this is a must-have recording which will only enhance your appreciation of the great composer’s genius. If you only like Finlandia and find some of the symphonies a bit heavy going then this is unlikely to convert you. This CD doesn’t challenge the best of orchestral recordings. These performances exist in a different sphere, and to make comparisons would be to miss the points already made. The recording is very good, but demands a quality system to make sense of the densest material. All in all, I have to say this is a magnificent success, which was by no means my assumption in advance.
Dominy Clements

All in all, a magnificent success.