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Jean SIBELIUS [1865-1957]
6 Impromptus (1890-1893) [15:11]
Sonatina in F-sharp minor, op. 67/1 (1912) [7:16]
5 Morceaux op. 75 “The Trees” (1914) [13:12]
10 Piano Pieces op. 24 (1895-1903) [36:15]
Erro Heinonen (piano)
rec. 31 October-2 November 2015, Sello Hall, Espoo, Finland

While Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is best known for his dramatic orchestral compositions, he also wrote quite a sizable body of work for the solo piano. This disc collects some of the smaller-scale pieces and bagatelles from Sibelius, played by Finnish pianist Eero Heinonen (b. 1950). These pieces keep the flavor of Sibelius’ larger works, with a bleak Nordic take and often intense drama in little pianistic baubles of a few minutes’ duration each.

The 6 Impromptus (1890-1893) find Sibelius trying on a number of different masks. These little pieces veer between spare melancholy reminiscent of late Liszt, to a primitive, atavistic feeling that anticipates Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The fourth impromptu reminds one of an impromptu from Schubert on a particularly depressed day, while the fifth veers into Chopinesque territory. While the kaleidoscopic nature of these pieces is interesting, it also keeps them from being a very cohesive set.

The Sonatina in F-sharp minor, the first of a set of three, displays very complex rhythms in its opening Allegro. The second movement Largo is quite severe and stark in contrast. The finale is both playful and serious, with a delicate and fun ending. Though this piece must be quite difficult, Heinonen gives it a breezy air of carefree virtuosity without being flashy.

We delve into a bit of programme music with “The Trees,” 5 Morceaux (1914). These pieces, each associated with a different kind of tree, are gorgeous and evocative. I particularly like Nr. 4, “The Birch,” with its halting and suggestive mood. The fifth piece, “The Spruce,” or “Granen,” is one of Sibelius’ better known piano works and Heinonen gives a fine performance of it here.

The highlight of the disc for me is the set of 10 Piano Pieces, op.24 (1895-1903). All but one of these little gems is set in a form of triple time (3/4, 6/8 or 9/4), giving solid cohesion to the set as an examination of the waltz form. The first of these pieces, the Impromptu in G minor, is one of my favorite things on the CD, and is given a spirited performance by Heinonen. Some moments in it anticipate Sibelius’ famed Valse triste from the Karelia Suite, which was written in 1903 soon after these pieces. The Impromptu comes to a breathless conclusion, after covering a vast amount of emotional territory in just over four minutes.

The other pieces in the op.24 set are also intriguing. #2, Romance in A, features incredibly complex timing and rhythms. Certain elements in #3, the Caprice in E minor, are so similar to moments in Rhapsody in Blue that I suspect Gershwin must have been familiar with this piece. The one piece not in triple time is #8, the Nocturno in E minor. With its accompaniment off the beat, it comes across a bit too harshly here; it needs a much more tender touch. The ninth piece, the Romance in D-flat, was a parlor favorite in the early 20th century, and it still holds up well.

While Heinonen’s playing is generally quite good, he does have a tendency to be very harsh in his attacks where the music does not call for it. He also neglects Sibelius’ fermatas consistently, playing straight through them.

The lack of sensitivity is not helped at all by severe dynamic compression. There is very little variation of volume here, even though within the same bagatelle Sibelius may call for triple pianissimo and fortissimo. The loss of contrasting sound hurts the effectiveness of many of the pieces (most notably op.24/9). While the music occasionally gets louder for a crescendo, it never gets softer in a diminuendo. That’s truly unfortunate since much of Sibelius’ dramatic flair is found in his contrasts as well as his harmonies and rhythms.

Mark S. Zimmer

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