The piano music of Jean Sibelius has been distinctly subordinate to his orchestral works in the concert sphere. They are mostly in character-piece genres, and these short works have little of the profound thematic development of the composer's symphonies. Sibelius himself told his children that he wrote them for commercial reasons, "so that you will have bread and butter." Yet, giving the lie to that, he seems to have become more and more interested in the piano as he grew older, and his uneasy relationship with the instrument as a performer (he was an indifferent pianist at best) turned from a liability into a virtue as he devised intriguing textures that, when brought out by a master pianist, stick in the head. Vladimir Ashkenazy, a fine Sibelius specialist as a conductor, here offers one of the few large groupings of Sibelius piano music available, at least outside of Finland, and it's fair to say he uncovers unexpected riches. The album opens and closes with the same piece, a piano arrangement of the Valse Triste, Op. 44; the second recording is made on Sibelius' own piano, at his home studio, and it's a delightfully intimate document. In between are a lone early impromptu and pieces from four sets of short works from the middle and later parts of Sibelius' career. Indeed, the Five Esquisses, Op. 114, composed in 1929 for an American publisher but not issued until the early '60s, are among his very last compositions. All are recognizably Sibelian, and although a few are in the idioms of Grieg or Tchaikovsky they're not simply parlor pieces. Annotator Anthony Burton offers a reasonable comparison: they are the equivalent of the drawings of a great painter, enhancing appreciation of the masterworks but also fascinating in their own right." Often they rest on some kind of anomalous harmonic or textural detail that functions analogously to, say, the recurring motive in the Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105, both tying the work together and posing its central question. "Song in the Forest" (track 26), from the Five Esquisses group, offers a good sample with its tritone-based main thematic material, not really answered by the limpid melody in the middle. The "Tempo di minuetto" (track 9) from the 10 Pieces, Op. 58, is a curiously humorous piece that exemplifies the unique mixture of light music and quirky experiment in these works. A lovely hour with the venerable Ashkenazy. Booklet notes are in Japanese and English; as is often the case with Japanese releases, they are different in content, not simply translated from one language to the other.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Ten Pieces, Op. 58|
|Five Pieces, Op. 85|
|Five Romantic Pieces, Op. 101|
|Five Esquisses, Op. 114|