About this Recording
8.553899 - SIBELIUS: Piano Music, Vol. 1

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Piano Music Volume 1
Six Impromptus, Op. 5; Sonata in F major, Op. 12; Ten Pieces, Op. 24

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born the son of a doctor, in a small town in the south of Finland. The language and culture of his family, as with others of their class and background at the time, was Swedish. It was at school that Sibelius was to learn Finnish and acquire his first real interest in the early legends of a country that had become an autonomous grand duchy of the Tsar of Russia in the period after the defeat of Charles XII of Sweden at Poltava in 1709. Throughout the later nineteenth century there were division, between the Swedish-speaking upper classes and the Finnish-speaking people, the cause of the latter embraced by influential nationalists, and accentuated by the repressive measures instituted by Tsar Nicholas II, before the revolution of 1905.

The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, although not developed early enough to suggest music as a possible profession, until he had entered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this respect – and here his own violin concerto would have offered insurmountable technical difficulties for him – was far outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study in Helsinki with Martin Wegelius, then with the pedantic Becker in Berlin and with Goldmark, and more effectively, with Robert Fuchs in Vienna.

In Finland once more, Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, based on an episode from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki, including the incidental music to the student patriotic pageant Karelia, En Saga and the Lemminkäinen Suite. During this period Sibelius supported himself and his wife by teaching, as well as by composition and the performance of his works, but it proved difficult for him to earn enough, given, as he was, to bouts of extravagance, continuing the practice of his days as a student. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at the University of Helsinki, but the committee's decision was overturned in favour of Robert Kajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professional orchestra in Helsinki. As consolation for his disappointment, Sibelius was awarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into a pension for life. The sum involved was never enough to meet his gift for improvidence, inherited, perhaps, from his father who, at his death in 1868, had left his family bankrupt.

For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, now isolated from and largely antipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain and America remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to the excessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed to recapture the position that he had earlier known in pre-war Germany, in France and in Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.

In common with other composers of the period, Sibelius might have expected to find a commercial market for his piano music, particularly for sets of short pieces suitable for domestic performance. Although his writing for the piano is seldom idiomatic, he composed a number of works for the instrument, the first from the 1880s unpublished, as was the last set of pieces, written in 1929.

The first to be published, in 1893, were the Six Impromptus, Opus 5, issued in the same year as his well known Karelia Suite. Impromptu No. 1 in G minor, marked Moderato, has an introduction of solemn chords, leading to a solemn theme in the lower register. Impromptu No. 2, also in G minor, has a brief slow introduction, leading to a Vivaee dance with a contrasting G major section. Impromptu No. 3 in A minor is marked Moderato (alla Marcia). Set over a repeated bass pattern, it has a gentler F major trio section over pedal notes. The E minor Impromptu No. 4 is in a mood of gentle melancholy, suggesting a folk-song. Vivace arpeggios characterize Impromptu No. 5 and the set ends with Impromptu No. 6 in E major, marked Commodo. Again there is a repeated bass pattern, accompanying a wistful melody.

Sibelius published his Sonata in F major, Opus 12, in the same year. The opening Allegro molto is in tripartite classical sonata form. In writing that is much nearer the idiom of the piano, a first subject is introduced over a repeated bass pattern, the equivalent of notes that might be sustained in the orchestra. A transition leads to a C major second subject, which soon leads into other territory, as the material is developed. The original material returns, appropriately adjusted in key. The following Andantino is in B flat minor, offering at first a simple melody with a syncopated chordal accompaniment. A faster section offers a contrast of key and mood, before the return of the principal theme and key, now with an arpeggio accompaniment. The quicker material returns, leading to the final chordal return of the main theme. Repeated bass patterns, suggesting sustained orchestral pedal-notes, are a feature again of the Vivacissimo final movement, with its rhythmic opening theme contrasted with a more relaxed B flat major secondary theme, again over pedal-notes. When both elements have duly returned, cascades of arpeggios bring the sonata to an end.

The Ten Pieces, Opus 24, were written between 1894 and 1903. The first piece, an Impromptu in the key of G minor, at first marked Vivace, again suggests orchestral writing, particularly in its harmonically accompanying textures. There is a short relaxation of tension before the sinister opening material returns. The F sharp minor Romance, marked Andantino, is ambitious in its dramatic dynamic climax. It is followed by an E minor Caprice, marked Vivace, its opening bars suggesting an ambiguity of rhythm, before the succeeding romantic textures and melody in a mood that is soon dispelled. A D minor Romance, with the direction Tranquillo, leads to a dramatic climax, soon subsiding into the initial mood of tranquility. The fifth piece is a lively E major Valse, with a contrasting central section. An F major Andantino Idyll follows, its simple opening idea developed with the melody in an inner part, more elaborately accompanied. A 9/4 Andantino in F major has a wistful charm of its own. It is followed by an E minor Nocturne, its melodic interest at first in the left hand, returning in a higher register after a central section of greater turbulence. The D flat major Romance, marked Andantino, is the best known of the Ten Pieces, enfolding a histrionic climax in the simpler material of its outer sections. The G minor Barcarola suggests the sinister in its opening. As so often here, Sibelius shows a general preference for deeper sonorities and for sustained or repeated pedal notes in music of sombre foreboding.

Keith Anderson

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