Leif Ove Andsnes: Sibelius
Sony Classical

It's not often the words piano classical repertoire and Jean Sibelius appear in the same sentence. Which makes this personal tribute by Leif Ove Andsnes all the more indispensable: whereas a new recording of Chopin nocturnes offers a new perspective on the composer, an album of solo piano works by the Finnish composer expands considerably on the established portrait and our appreciation of his artistry. Compared to his symphonies, tone poems, and violin concerto, his piano works are less familiar (even though nineteen of his 117 opus numbers denote piano works), and as a result many listeners will be hearing material on this release for the first time.

If anyone is qualified to tackle the project, it's Andsnes, an award-winning Norwegian pianist of consummate technical ability who was introduced to Sibelius's distinctive soundworld by the Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund decades ago and who performs regularly in the world's leading concert halls and with the foremost orchestras. Though Andsnes is a Beethoven specialist who recorded all five of his piano concertos as part of his “Beethoven Journey” project, his command of the piano repertoire extends to Chopin, Schubert, Grieg, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, and others.

The approach to track sequencing was thoughtfully conceived, with Andsnes largely choosing to follow the chronology of works that span Sibelius's career, from the Six Impromptus, which date from the early 1880s, to the Five Sketches, written in the 1920s when Sibelius also was composing his sixth and seventh symphonies. Hearing the pieces in the order in which they were written allows the listener to better monitor Sibelius's stylistic evolution, at least in so far as it's captured in his piano writing. With Andsnes having carefully selected pieces from the composer's entire piano output, the portrait, though representative, is by definition incomplete, but it's nevertheless invaluable. In a daring admission included in the release's booklet, the pianist states, “I will be the first to admit that Sibelius's piano music is uneven in quality,” and as a result we're presented with the most flattering portrait, as least in so far as it's been determined by Andsnes.

The folk strain that's so much a part of Sibelius's writing is audible in the opening fifth impromptu, but a French influence is present, too; it's only natural for the rolling patterns that flow through the background to remind one of Debussy, for example; the sixth, on the other hand, unfolds in a stately lilt that calls Satie and Chopin to mind, albeit both refracted through a Nordic sensibility. Finnish folklore likewise plays a part in the expressive Three Lyric Pieces (1904), aka Kyllikki (the name originating from Finland's literary epic The Kalevala), from the declamatory opening movement and sombre Andantino to high-spirited Commodo, all of which Andsnes renders with masterful sensitivity. Sibelius's deep connection to nature is also borne out by the tree-themed Five Pieces for Piano, Op. 75, of which two parts are included, "Bjorken" (“The Birch”) and "Granen" (his celebration of Finland's national tree, “The Spruce”), the latter notable for its gentle, salon-like quality.

The influence of other composers and styles gradually recedes as the album proceeds, such that by the time the Sonatina No. 1, Op. 67 arrives, Sibelius can be heard writing in a more experimental and idiosyncratic manner. It's hardly the only time evidence of which surfaces on the recording: the main melodic figure in the “Elegiaco” from the Thirteen Pieces for Piano, Op. 76 (1911-19), for instance, extends across five bars rather than the expected four, though the metrical deviation sounds so natural it could easily go unnoticed.

For many a listener, the album's most familiar setting will be the famous Valse triste (1904), performed here in the composer's own piano arrangement (though with a little bit of help from Andsnes). Stripped of the orchestral version's sonorous textures, the composition's languorous design still seduces, especially when Andsnes's fluid tempo modulations intensify the material's wistful character. Throughout the sixty-six-minute recording, his playing dazzles, the Norwegian pianist consistently showing himself to be capable of capturing every facet of Sibelius's music, whether it be delicate and introverted or gregarious and playful.

December 2017