Sibelius: Piano Music Vol.2 (Gimse/Naxos)

Even though it was never a medium he was comfortable with, it doesn’t have to mean the music Sibelius wrote for solo piano cannot be enjoyed.

This second volume in Naxos’ survey of Sibelius’ piano music begins with the lovely collection of Six Finnish Folk-Songs and Ten Bagatelles. The former consist of tiny tiny pieces, as short as 55 seconds, none longer than two minutes – all quiet and melancholy ([1] My beloved), or tranquil and utterly sweet ([6] Wedding memories), warmly and evocatively played by Gimse here, with much grace and natural flow, such that all six seem to flow into each other without a break (which might have been the intention). When one thinks of images of Sibelius in his old age, or perhaps when one thinks of some untouched, quiet spot of nature, this music speaks volumes.

Almost all the pieces in this Naxos volume are present in Vol.2 of Annette Servadei’s cycle of Sibelius piano music on Olympia (OCD 632). Comparing her performance of the Folk-songs with Gimse’s, I must (with all due respect to Ms Servadei, who has championed this music for ages) say I prefer the new recording and performances. Maybe it’s due to Olympia’s poorer sound, but Gimse brings out so much more grace and lyricism to the music. Eg. Servadei’s Wedding memories has too much marcato, whereas Gimse’s rubato evokes a smile.

Sibelius at his study, 1915
Sibelius at his study, 1915

The Folk-Songs segue seamlessly into the cheery No.1 of the Ten Bagatelles of opus 34. These were written between 1914 and 1916 – i.e. the First World War. Popular opinion is that Sibelius wrote these “marketable” pieces because he was in financial debt (then again, he was almost always in debt) then, but worse than before now that he had no access to the lucrative German market via Breitkopf and Härtel. The Bagatelles too are short pieces, only two of which breach the 2-minute mark.

All are charming, quintessentially Romantic pieces – ranging from the abstract and charming – the Valse, the Air de danse, the Mazurka, or the Boutade; to the serene and pensive, say the Rêverie (or later, in Till trånaden, or “To longing”), to the more descriptive Danse pastorale or Joueur de harpe (harp-player), the latter with its eloquent wisps and pauses highly reminscent of the harp parts of the great tone poem, The Bard. Like the Folk-Songs, the Bagatelles also end with a spot of nostalgia, in this case, the wistful Souvenir.

Håvard Gimse (b.1966) proves to be a fabulous advocate of these works – his sense of curve and rubato, of dynamic levels, brings and breathes life into this music. The sense of kinship with their moods, along with the fine interpretation of the lyric qualities of the scores, make for a most remarkable recording.

A quick ride on Kavaljeren (“The Cavalier”) is followed by a 46-second Spagnuolo, described as “an unusual Scandinavian excursion to the south” – it ends abruptly and I seriously wonder what concise message Sibelius was thinking of.

The Morceau romantique aptly describes what this album is full of – morsels of romantic music (but not necessarily morsels of quality) – here you can hear the expressive abilities of Gimse’s natural swells and capacity for subtle momentum. Listen also to his graceful shift from slow to fast section in the following Dance Intermezzo. My point once again is: though this is not exactly “highbrow” Sibelius music, it does not mean we cannot enjoy it. There is no need to believe that everything that comes from a genius must be of an overwhelming intellectual quality.

With the end of the short individual pieces in the middle of the album, we return to the world of the pensive and lyrical in the Pensées lyriques, op.40. Again there are a range of emotions in the opus, from the light sorrow of the opening Valsette and Chant sans paroles, to the cheery/impish Humoresque and Rondoletto, and the dignified Minuetto.

Berceuse is always a good word with Sibelius, a name he gives to some of his sweetest but often poignant little pieces. The 1-minute Scherzando is rather humorously cheeky with its winks and skips, but next to it is one of the loveliest gems on this disc, the Petite sérénade – all mellow serenity and heartwarming lyricism, with Gimse at his best.

Kyllikki, op.41 is among Sibelius’ most famous piano works. In three parts, the name refers to the maiden abducted by Lemminkäinen, in the Kalevala. This music though, is not narrative, but instead seems to depict the moods surrounding the legend. The Largamente is powerful and stern music, heavy with momentum, perhaps representing Lemminkäinen. Whereas Annette Servadei (Vol.3 of the Olympia cycle OCD 633) sounds fierce, Gimse brings out the rather more regal and heroic tone of the music. The Andante is by turns deeply melancholic yet not lacking in moments of high lyric beauty. Servadei’s version is very dark and gloomy, while Gimse’s is sorrowfully pensive; both pianists relish the soaring lyric theme and also do well in the final Commodo movement

The playback quality on the Naxos cycle is far superior to the Olympia cycle (a pity for Servadei, sincerely) and bodes well for future volumes. Well, my fellow Sibelius nutcases, do not hesitate: go get this.

Piano Music Vol.2

Six Finnish Folk-Songs · Ten Bagatelles, op.34· Kavaljeren (The Cavalier)

Spagnuolo · Till trånaden (To longing) · Mandolinato

Morceau romantique · Dance Intermezzo, op.45/2

Pensées lyriques, op.40 · Kylliki, op.41, Three Lyric Pieces

HÅVARD GIMSE piano

NAXOS 8.554507

[65:11] budget-price

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Leon

Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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