Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 (transcribed for piano by Henri Sigfridsson) [45:21]
Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82 (transcribed for piano by Karl Ekman and Henri Sigfridsson) [31:44]
Henri Sigfridsson (piano)
rec. 4 and 6 October, 2010 (No. 5), and 19 February and 15 March 2011 (No. 2), Järvenpää Hall, Helsinki, Finland
ONDINE ODE 1179-2 [77:05]
I have two good things to say about this disc, one of them trivial and the other relatively important. The first thing is that Ondine’s cover design is truly striking, an impressively realized vision by their graphics department. The second thing is that Henri Sigfridsson’s piano performances of two great Sibelius symphonies are clear, compelling proof that Sibelius made his orchestration, and his deployment of different instruments for different purposes, an essential component of the arguments and developments of his symphonies. This is part of the genius of Sibelius: his writing makes every member of the orchestra necessary, vital, central. Piano versions of Brahms or Beethoven symphonies feel black-and-white, or pared-down; piano versions of Sibelius symphonies are broken.
There’s no better example of this than the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. The movement presents a theme, four notes long, in the first bars, then echoes, rearranges, extends, and trims those four notes for a near-endless series of variations. In the first minute alone the theme is traded between French horns, flutes, clarinets, oboes, and back to the clarinets and flutes again. After the massive transition point to the scherzo, the trumpets take the theme, then pass it to the flutes and violins, then to all the winds again, back to the trumpet, over to the horns, then the violins and flutes again. It’s the subtle variations which power the drama, and it’s the changes in instrumentation which allow the variations to work. The conversation among orchestra members, all speaking the same words in different ways, is what makes this movement both odd and gripping: it’s almost like a Beckett experiment, a single sentence spoken a hundred times in a hundred ways.
What we’d expect, then, is that if all of these statements of the motto theme were played on a piano, more or less in the same register most of the time, then the whole movement would fall flat on its face. And indeed this is exactly what happens. On a piano, with all the winds being transcribed to the same stretch of keys, hearing the same motif over and over is achingly boring.
Another example of the orchestral essence of the score is more surprising: the transition to the scherzo makes no musical sense on the piano. Why does it happen then, and not earlier or later? Sibelius, in his original score, uses two tricks here: (a) dramatic crescendo from the bassoon solo to the subsequent turbulence, which signals to us that a major change is about to occur, and (b) long sustained notes in the strings which heighten the tension and “tie” the brass chords together. The sudden uptick in tempo and return of the original theme, blazing forth on trumpets, feels natural rather than forced because it dissolves an incredible amount of tension. On the piano, the buildup is largely absent - the crescendo doesn’t have much room to grow since Sigfridsson can’t play quietly anyway - and the sense of continuity is disrupted by the piano’s inability to sustain those string notes. As a result the moment actually doesn’t make sense: it feels like an unnatural lurch backwards, the change in tempo an unconvincing rupture, the new start arbitrary. The formal innovation of this moment is predicated on the capabilities of a symphony orchestra; reduced to piano, the movement is a failure.
The necessity of the orchestra isn’t surprising for the daring, original Fifth Symphony, but Sigfridsson also conclusively demonstrates that the more overtly romantic Second is irreconcilably orchestral at its roots. Listen to the opening of the finale: with a full orchestra, we have a tuba scooping out low notes and trumpets on high, creating a massive spatial differentiation: the music feels like a tall building with different sounds coming from different floors. The silence of much of the orchestra also gives us a sense of emptiness or hollowness. All of this is lost on the piano, of course, because both hands are at work, they’re not in extremely high and low registers, and therefore the passage doesn’t sound at all out of the ordinary.
Other moments are strained, too: the angry climax of the slow movement becomes a self-parody of tremolos, Sigfridsson’s insistence that note lengths be retained leading him to believe that endless series of tremolos are a better idea than simply condensing the climax to a few sharp, incisive, and (let’s face it) more pianistic chords. The first movement’s structure, so natural-seeming when every one of the six or so melodic snippets is assigned its own instrument and texture, dissolves to absolute chaos here; the whole movement feels like random jumping back and forth between ideas.
The booklet notes write that Jean Sibelius conceived of his music in purely orchestral terms, writing for orchestra in his head, rather than composing at the piano in the style of, say, Brahms. The booklet writers, as well as arrangers Sigfridsson and Karl Ekman, appear to believe that Sibelius’ bypass around the piano results in vivid, colorful orchestration which is hard for a piano to replicate. What they fail to understand is that Sibelius’s writing for orchestra also has structural, rhetorical implications which are hard for a piano to replicate. The sound of the orchestra is not the clothing in which Sibelius dresses his musical ambition: it is a vital organ. It is the heart.
Without orchestra, the first movement of Symphony No. 2 becomes an excess of haphazard ideas. Without orchestra, whenever the same symphony’s andante gets loud it turns into meaningless banging about. Without orchestra, the first movement of the Fifth Symphony is a lot of ultra-repetitive dithering and the work’s final coda is completely lacking in any sense of uplift. The slow variations movement begins in Schubert’s sound world, say D960, before easing into the most satisfying stretch of music on the disc. The ‘swan hymn’ isn’t just played by horns; it is of horns, inseparable from horns, in the way that Brando was essential to Corleone or nature was to Monet. Consider just how little the horns had been doing since the next-to-last variation in the previous movement, to make their re-entrance even more significant; this is completely lost on a keyboard. Consider how, on the piano, the hymn theme is actually less interesting, and less pretty, than the music that came before it!
To be fair, there are good moments here, like the unexpected line of high notes at 2:50 in No. 2’s first movement. The slow movement of that symphony opens very well, too, its combination of modesty and mystery fully intact, and the slow movement of No. 5 works a lot of the time. The build-up to No. 2’s final coda is really very exciting indeed, genuinely extremely good, but then the coda itself dissolves into silly tremolos again, most appallingly the two final “Amen” chords, because apparently Sigfridsson thought that silly ragtime effects over a droning bass line were a stronger ending then just hammering out two quick, massive speaker-busting whole-note chords. Sigfridsson’s actual pianism doesn’t really help most of the time; except for a stretch around 12:00 in No. 2’s finale, it’s just as earnestly plain as it was a few years ago on his drab Rachmaninov concerto album.
In summation, I’d say that if you really love these Sibelius symphonies, you should do the following: listen to these piano reductions (reduction meant in several senses) once, then go back to the originals. Your appreciation for the originals, and for the absolute necessity of every orchestration decision, will be redoubled. You may not want to listen to this a second time, however. In fact, if money is a consideration, you’re probably best off just trusting my word. Without the orchestral forces for which they were written, the Sibelius symphonies fail. That’s an awe-inspiring testament to the far-sighted brilliance of the composer’s scoring, but it’s bad news for this CD.
Without orchestra, the Sibelius symphonies fail. That’s testament to the genius of the composer’s scoring, but it’s bad news for this CD.