SIBELIUS: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Havard Gimse) (Naxos: 8.553899)
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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 asmall town in the south of Finland. The language and culture of his family, aswith others of their class and background at the time, was Swedish. It was atschool that Sibelius was to learn Finnish and acquire his first real interestin the early legends of a country that had become an autonomous grand duchy ofthe Tsar of Russia in the period after the defeat of Charles XII of Sweden atPoltava in 1709. Throughout the later nineteenth century there were division,between the Swedish-speaking upper classes and the Finnish-speaking people, thecause of the latter embraced by influential nationalists, and accentuated bythe repressive measures instituted by Tsar Nicholas II, before the revolutionof 1905.
The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, although notdeveloped early enough to suggest music as a possible profession, until he hadentered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been tobe a violinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in thisrespect - and here his own violin concerto would have offered insurmountable technicaldifficulties for him - was far outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developedfirst by study in Helsinki with Martin Wegelius, then with the pedantic Beckerin Berlin and with Goldmark, and more effectively, with Robert Fuchs in Vienna.
In Finland once more, Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 witha symphonic poem, Kullervo, based on an episode from the Finnish epic,the Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appealthat further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki, including the incidentalmusic to the student patriotic pageant Karelia, En Saga and the LemminkainenSuite. During this period Sibelius supported himself and his wife byteaching, as well as by composition and the performance of his works, but itproved difficult for him to earn enough, given, as he was, to bouts ofextravagance, continuing the practice of his days as a student. In 1896 he wasvoted the position of professor at the University of Helsinki, but thecommittee's decision was overturned in favour of Robert Kajanus, theexperienced founder and conductor of the first professional orchestra inHelsinki. As consolation for his disappointment, Sibelius was awarded agovernment stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into a pension forlife. 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 hisfamily bankrupt.
For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, now isolatedfrom and largely antipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputationin Britain and America remained high, although there were inevitable reactionsto the excessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe hefailed 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 haveexpected to find a commercial market for his piano music, particularly for setsof short pieces suitable for domestic performance. Although his writing for thepiano 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 in1929.
The first to be published, in 1893, were the Six Impromptus, Opus5, 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 toa solemn theme in the lower register. Impromptu No. 2, also in Gminor, has a brief slow introduction, leading to a Vivaee dance with acontrasting G major section. Impromptu No. 3 in A minor is markedModerato (alla Marcia). Set over a repeated bass pattern, it has agentler 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 arpeggioscharacterize Impromptu No. 5 and the set ends with Impromptu No.
6 in E major, marked Commodo. Again there is a repeated basspattern, accompanying a wistful melody.
Sibelius published his Sonata in F major, Opus 12, in the sameyear. The opening Allegro molto is in tripartite classical sonata form.
In writing that is much nearer the idiom of the piano, a first subject isintroduced over a repeated bass pattern, the equivalent of notes that might besustained in the orchestra. A transition leads to a C major second subject,which soon leads into other territory, as the material is developed. Theoriginal material returns, appropriately adjusted in key. The following Andantinois in B flat minor, offering at first a simple melody with a syncopatedchordal accompaniment. A faster section offers a contrast of key and mood,before the return of the principal theme and key, now with an arpeggioaccompaniment. The quicker material returns, leading to the final chordalreturn of the main theme. Repeated bass patterns, suggesting sustainedorchestral pedal-notes, are a feature again of the Vivacissimo finalmovement, with its rhythmic opening theme contrasted with a more relaxed B flatmajor secondary theme, again over pedal-notes. When both elements have dulyreturned, cascades of arpeggios bring the sonata to an end.
The Ten Pieces, Opus 24, were written between 1894 and 1903. Thefirst piece, an Impromptu in the key of G minor, at first marked Vivace,again suggests orchestral writing, particularly in its harmonicallyaccompanying textures. There is a short relaxation of tension before thesinister 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 soondispelled. A D minor Romance, with the direction Tranquillo, leadsto a dramatic climax, soon subsiding into the initial mood of tranquility. Thefifth piece is a lively E major Valse, with a contrasting centralsection. An F major Andantino Idyll follows, its simple opening idea developedwith the melody in an inner part, more elaborately accompanied. A 9/4 Andantinoin 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 higherregister after a central section of greater turbulence. The D flat major Romance,marked Andantino, is the best known of the Ten Pieces, enfoldinga histrionic climax in the simpler material of its outer sections. The G minor Barcarolasuggests the sinister in its opening. As so often here, Sibelius shows ageneral preference for deeper sonorities and for sustained or repeated pedalnotes in music of sombre foreboding.