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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Piano Music from Ainola
Track-listing at end of review
Folke Gräsbeck plays Sibelius’s own piano at Ainola
rec. 2014, Ainola, Järvenpää, Finland
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet enclosed
BIS BIS-2132 SACD [80:54]

BIS have done Sibelius proud with their monumental Sibelius Edition, but even so I hope the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth focuses attention on works that aren’t so well known. The symphonies and tone poems are concert and recording staples – relatively speaking, that is – so it’s really encouraging to see releases such as this. These piano pieces, which deserve to be more widely heard, have the distinction of being played on the Steinway grand (No. 171 261) presented to Sibelius on the occasion of his 50th birthday in 1915.

The pianist on this recording is Folke Gräsbeck, who is closely associated with the music of this composer. Not only is he artistic director of the Sibelius in Korpo festival he also holds the Order of the Lion of Finland and the Sibelius Medal of the Sibelius Society of Finland. I first encountered this most engaging artist playing the piano and harmonium parts in a recent set of Sibelius’s works for mixed choir (review). He also features in several instalments of the Sibelius Edition, notably Vol. 4 and Vol. 10.

Minutes into this generous collection and several things are clear. First, Gräsbeck plays with an ease and affection that’s utterly right for these pieces. Second, this ageing instrument is in very good shape. And third, Take5’s producer and sound engineer Jens Braun has conjured up the most tactile and truthful piano sound imaginable. Every nuance and timbre is faithfully rendered; this is all the more remarkable as the recording was made in a lakeside villa, not a modern studio or concert space. Indeed, this is every bit as impressive as Hans Kipfer’s recent BIS recording of Sonja Fräki playing the piano works of Kalevi Aho (review).

Now for the music. The opening Andantino, Allegretto and Largo – the latter a world premiere recording of the Kesälahti version – are delivered with a winning blend of clarity and character. The piano’s pedal action may seem a tad abrupt at times, but otherwise Gräsbeck sustains a steady, seamless flow of pleasing melodies and firm but gentle rhythms. With its many moods the Largo really is one of those pieces that encapsulates the world in miniature. As for the two excerpts from the Six Impromptus they show Sibelius at his vital and virtuosic best – No. 2 especially so – and the recurring Ondine-like cascades of No. 5 are a soft drench of delight.

The insistent figures of Caprice – No. 3 of the Ten Pieces – find the composer in more forthright, declamatory garb; they also underline the low-register robustness and otherwise lively nature of this instrument. All too often such pianos are apt to sound their age, with a distracting clang and loss of body, yet there’s very little evidence of that here. One just has to hear Sibelius’s mighty Finlandia – in the composer’s transcription – to realise that age cannot crab the wonderful sound of a vintage Steinway. Gräsbeck gives a nicely articulated, sonorous account of this signature piece that alternately shimmers and towers in the mind’s eye. Speaking of eyes, yours may not be dry after this heartfelt performance.

There’s something a little spooky about hearing Finlandia on Sibelius’s own piano. It’s not unlike listening to Mahler’s Welte-Mignon Rolls, where one is transported – as if by a sudden wormhole – into the composer’s presence. The fact that Gräsbeck is one of those natural, self-effacing talents – nothing added, nothing taken away – contributes to the sheer joy of these performances. The Schubertian burble of Musette, part of the music Sibelius wrote for Adolf Paul’s play King Christian II, is a case in point; it’s delectably shaped and the rhythms are beautifully sprung.

Sibelius’s transcription of the wistful Valse triste, from music he penned for Arvid Järnefelt’s play Kuolema (Death), is no less accomplished; really, this is playing of the highest order, and the recording is simply gorgeous. Indeed, I surreptitiously pressed Repeat a few times, such is the lustre of this little gem. Meanwhile Pan and Echo, another of the composer’s transcriptions, has a power and sense of purpose that Gräsbeck preserves without recourse to exaggerated dynamics or other pianistic prods. The ensuing Rondino in G sharp minor and Granen (The Spruce) show no slackening of inspiration or execution; the inner quietude of the latter is particularly well conveyed.

The five excerpts from the Thirteen Pieces offer a kaleidoscope of moods and talents. Gräsbeck has a fine sense of touch in Étude and displays astonishing dexterity in Arabesque, Capriccietto and Harlequinade; he also creates a pensive loveliness in Elegiaco. The five flower sketches of Op. 85 are a bouquet of vibrant colours and quivering detail, to which Gräsbeck responds with playing of delicacy and charm. Is there no end to this man’s keyboard wizardry? Fortunately not. The Two Pieces for Oscar Parviainen may be brief but there’s no denying the condensed affection and healing energy they contain.

The Op. 99 Souvenir and Moment de valse are works whose economy of utterance actually conceals a wealth of expxressive detail. Gräsbeck shades the dynamics of the former with great sensitivity, and he brings point and sparkle to the latter. As for Scène romantique it gets a generous, even genial outing here; indeed, the heart of this piece beats with quiet contentment, and it’s no surprise that the always intuitive Gräsbeck captures that sense of equilibrium so well. Even the more solemn chords of The Village Church – as hewn, as implacably here as any of Sibelius’s great landscapes – emerge with grace and grandeur. It’s a mark of Gräsbeck’s interpretive skills that he’s even able to divine a human countenance behind the anonymously titled Landscape II.

After a preliminary listen I tweeted that this was a very special release indeed. I seldom do that, but I really wanted listeners to know of the manifold pleasures that await them. This confluence of exceptional pianism, masterly miniatures and an exemplary recording has produced a wonderfully nourishing recital. Without a doubt this will be one of my picks of the year.

Musical and sonic nirvana, this; prepare to be overwhelmed.

Dan Morgan

Andantino in B major, JS 44 (1888) [1:26]
Allegretto in B flat minor, JS 18 (1888) [0:59]
Largo in A major, JS 117 (1888) [4:18]
from Six Impromptus, Op. 5 (1893)
No. 2 in G minor [1:54]
No. 5 in B minor [3:34]
from Ten Pieces, Op. 24
No. 3 Caprice (1898) [3:17]
No. 9 Romance in D flat major (1901) [3:49]
Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899, rev. 1900) [9:06]
Musette, Op. 27 No. 3 (1898) [2:18]
[Polka] Aino in C minor (1902–1905) [0:27]
Valse triste, Op. 44 No. 1 (1903, rev. 1904) [4:44]
Pan and Echo, Op. 53 (1906) [3:51]
Rondino in G sharp minor, Op. 68 No. 1 (1912) [3:18]
Granen (The Spruce), Op. 75 No. 5 (1914, rev. 1919) [3:04]
from Thirteen Pieces, Op. 76
No. 2. Étude (1911) [1:19]
No. 9. Arabesque (1914) [1:00]
No. 10. Elegiaco (1916) [2:18]
No. 12. Capriccietto (1914) [0:45]
No. 13. Harlequinade (1916) [1:07]
Five Pieces (The Flowers), Op. 85
No. 1. Bellis (The Daisy) (1917) [1:19]
No. 2. OEillet (The Carnation) (1916) [1:43]
No. 3. Iris (The Iris) (1916) [3:11]
No. 4. Aquileja (The Columbine) (1917) [2:13]
No. 5. Campanula (The Campanula) (1917) [2:15]
Two Pieces for Oscar Parviainen (1919)
Andantino, JS 201 [1:11]
Con passione, JS 53 [1:07]
from Eight Short Pieces, Op. 99 (1922)
No. 3. Souvenir [2:20]
No. 7. Moment de valse [1:11]
Scène romantique, Op. 101 No. 5 (1923-1924) [3:38]
The Village Church, Op. 103 No. 1 (1923-1924) [3:33]
Landscape II (1928-1929) [2:58]