A lot of ink has been spilled by Sibelius commentators asserting that he and the piano did not get on. It’s true that the piano music contains nothing that shows the degree of achievement of the Symphonies, but the dismissive attitude of early writers like Cecil Gray (‘completely undistinguished in conception and musical substance’) and Burnett James (‘triviality’, ‘total anonymity’) has slowly given way to a more realistic and reasoned approach. Glenn Gould was one of the first to understand it:
‘For one thing – and, given the era, it was no small achievement – Sibelius never wrote against the grain of the keyboard. At its best, his style partook of that spare, bleak, motivically stingy counterpoint that nobody south of the Baltic ever seems to write. And at – not its worst – its most conventional, perhaps, his keyboard manner is still a far cry from the generalized octave-doubling-prone textures espoused by most of his contemporaries’.
Perhaps the key to the piano music is to be found in a remark quoted in Vol. 1 of Erik Tawaststjerna’s monumental biography: ‘Sibelius told Bengt von Törne in later years that he composed piano music only when he was at a loose end and had free time on his hands’. That explains why vast majority of these pieces are what they are: brief character-pieces intended to appeal to an amateur market. Personality they have in plenty: it’s astonishing how much atmosphere Sibelius could conjure from just a handful of notes.
They don’t show the stylistic evolution of the Symphonies, either, since you could interchange many of the early and late character-pieces, but equally it’s striking how much some of the early works foreshadow the concerns of the later works, and how the later ones can suddenly swing into the brighter moods of youth. They’re a bit of a jumble, too: easy-going dances can sit next to more reflective pieces, and you’d have a hard job distinguishing between bagatelles, lyric pieces, sketches and whatever other labels they may bear.
This set of five CDs was intended to cover only the published piano works and it thus ignores almost all the piano transcriptions (some of these sets contain transcriptions), the 30 or so piano pieces from his youth and around 15 mature pieces.
Janne Mertanen is a reliable guide to this unfailingly attractive and sometimes moving repertoire: his rhythms are precise and his textures clear. His interpretations are slightly matter-of-fact – there’s more poetry here than he uncovers – but he brings considerable vigour to the brighter, more buoyant pieces. Good sound, too, and lucid notes from Antti Häyrynen.
Vol. 1: Ten Pieces, Op. 24; Six Impromptus, Op. 5; Sonata in F, Op. 12
Vol. 2: Ten Bagatelles, Op. 34; Pensées lyriques, Op. 40; Kyllikki, Op. 41; Two Rondinos, Op. 68
Vol. 3: Ten Pieces, Op. 58; Three Sonatinas, Op. 67
Vol. 4: Four Lyric Pieces, Op. 74; Five Pieces, Op. 75; Treize Morceaux, Op. 76; Cinq morceaux, Op. 85; Six Pieces, Op. 94
Vol. 5: Valse chevaleresque, Op. 96c; Valse lyrique, Op. 96a; Six Bagatelles, Op. 97; Huit Petits Morceaux, Op. 99; Cinq Morceaux romantiques, Op. 101; Five Characteristic Impressions, Op. 103; Five Esquisses, Op. 114
Janne Mertanen (piano)
Sony Music 88875161422 (5 CDs)