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The Majesty of the Miniature

by Martin Anderson

"Sibelius’ piano output is full of one gem after another; and they usually hold together as collections, too: he assembled his miniatures with care and an ear to tonal progressions and variety of expression."

Time was when even Sibelius’ admirers paid little attention to his piano music; when they did, it was usually to express disappointment that he didn’t write anything for the piano that was on a par with the symphonies. If you try to judge the piano music by the same yardstick as his orchestral output, you are bound to come away feeling short-changed. Once you judge it on its own terms, you can find much that is very good indeed – even the odd small-scale masterpiece.  

Glenn Gould stated that “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”. I’d put it more enthusiastically: Sibelius’ piano output is full of one gem after another; and they usually hold together as collections, too: he assembled his miniatures with care and an ear to tonal progressions and variety of expression.  

The first five of the 6 Impromptus, Op. 5, written between 1890 and 1893, and his first published pieces for piano, offer a series of good examples. The opening Moderato, in G minor, is a perfect miniature, with a memorable lamenting melody heard over a chordal accompaniment. The following piece, also in G minor, first suggests that the listener can expect more of the same, but the music soon bounces into a buoyant, and very Russian (or perhaps Karelian), trepak. The third Impromptu is a bright Alla marcia in A minor, with a more wistful central section in F major, although the pace doesn’t let up at all. The E minor Andantino opens with an archetypically Sibelian tune: plaintive, elusive – and very beautiful, which he caps in No. 5 with a tune that exquisitely lovely. In this company the last of the Impromptus is slightly disappointing, but thereby it points to the caution required in any examination of Sibelius’ piano œuvre, which will reveal music of a high order sitting alongside stuff which is little more than shavings from his workbench. Even so, the fact that it was Sibelius’ workbench should give the critics ground for caution. 

One could examine the other works here in similar detail (Eero Heinonen does so in his booklet text in any case); here a summary will have to do. The first of the three Op. 67 Sonatinas is remarkable for its combination of delicacy and darkness: it is pared down to its simplest gestures. One doesn’t expect virtuoso excess from Sibelius’ piano music, but its ability to plumb real depth of feeling with the sparsest of its gestures is striking – you sometimes think that if Dostoyevsky had written music, it would sound something like this. Likewise the 5 Morceaux, Op. 75, and the 10 Piano Pieces, Op. 24 – they’re an uncanny balance of simplicity of manner and profundity of thought.  

Eero Heinonen plays them with a straight bat, as cricketers say, letting the music speak for itself. And just in case you are wondering, since Heinonen recorded a complete set of the Sibelius piano works for Finlandia in the 1990s, these are new recordings, made in Espoo in autumn 2015. 

SIBELIUS: Piano Music

6 Impromptus, Op. 5; Sonatina in F sharp minor, Op. 67, No. 1; 5 Morceaux, Op. 75; 10 Piano Pieces, Op. 24 

Eero Heinonen (piano) 

Piano Classics PCL10220 

This year the PianoEspoo Festival (4-14 November, 2021) celebrates its 30th anniversary. On 14 November Eero Heinonen, one of the artists at the very first festival, travels through Franz Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses in his recital.