in Reviews

Sonic shavings from the workbench

by Martin Anderson

"Janne Mertanen lets the music speak for itself, though also taking the few virtuosic challenges in his stride."

Sibelius used to get a lot of stick for his piano music, even from writers who enthused about the rest of his output. In 1931 Cecil Gray complained of the piano works: "Not only are they for the most part completely undistinguished in conception and musical substance, but they are also singularly ineffective from the point of view of the instrument". Over half a century later Burnett James opined that "it is not the triviality of his salon music that distresses […] but its total anonymity". 

Glenn Gould came to the rescue: "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". Gould further made the astute observation that, since Sibelius pointedly avoided virtuoso display in the Violin Concerto, despite his desire to make his mark as a violin virtuoso, it’s hardly rational to expect "solo exhibitionism" in the piano music (and Gould can’t have then known how much Sibelius revised the first version of the Concerto to remove its flashier elements).

These 27 miniatures are mostly shavings from Sibelius’ workbench – variously gifts for friends, student exercises, sonic picture-postcards that attempt to recapture memories, moods and places; six of them are folksong settings. Most are around one or two minutes in duration; the longest piece here, the suite Florestan, in almost ten minutes in length – but it consists of four movements. Almost all of them were written for amateur pianists, to the extent that Sibelius had anyone in mind at all (a vigorous minute-and-a-half scherzo is one of the obviously exceptions) – and that’s where Gray and James seriously misjudged Sibelius’ piano music as a whole: these pieces on this recording, like most of his keyboard output, were not intended for professional pianists. 

For Gray to assert that they are "singularly ineffective from the point of view of the instrument" suggests that he was expecting Lisztian fireworks – but Sibelius wasn’t writing for Liszt. And they do sound as if they fit comfortably under the hand; indeed, they’re much more pianistic than (say) Nielsen’s piano music, which can give the impression that it was hacked out of the piano, like marble worked by a sculptor. And James’ complaint about "its total anonymity" is simply wrong-headed: it’s true that some of the earliest pieces here aren’t wildly individual, but Sibelius could, and did, create an atmosphere that was uniquely his; moreover, he often did so with a single, unharmonised melodic line (sometimes with just a note in the bass suggesting the harmony) or a series of (frequently modal) chords. 

Where the critics get it wrong is that Sibelius knew the people he was writing for, whether friends or magazine readers, and he crafted his music accordingly, as these gentle gems demonstrate. Janne Mertanen seems to understand that, and he lets the music speak for itself, though also taking the few virtuosic challenges in his stride. Sony has given him warm and clear sound.

Sibelius: Finnish Folk Songs and Discoveries

Janne Mertanen, piano 

Sony Classical 19439888582