In the wake of Sibelius's passing sixty years ago, I remember student days trawling through dank second-hand shops in west London seeking out what piano pieces of his I could find. Disappointingly, contrasting Grieg or Palmgren (especially the latter's D-minor Sonata, the heart-on-sleeve rhetoric and pianism of which suited my fingers), they failed to engage – though not before playing the fin de siècle D-flat Romance sowed the suspicion that there might be a beauty or two lurking about, a minor masterpiece even, had I but had the patience to persevere.
Cultured and committed, knowing what to showcase and when to prune, careful to weight, balance and colour, pursuing beauty and tone, mindful of chamber pointing and quasi orchestral texturing, Leif Ove Andsnes has come up with a milestone recording of poetic address, cross-sectioning a repertory from 1890 to 1929 contemporary with the orchestral masterworks from Kullervo to the Seventh Symphony, En Saga to Tapiola. Here is no album of duty, no dusting off of faded Breitkopf or Hansen pages, but a voyage of intimate personal belief and dedication through, as he puts it (referring to the F-sharp minor Sonatina), “a private world, […] almost not for the public, but [...] to play for a friend, or even alone.” The experience is revealing, rewarding, cathartic.
Some of these miniatures, Opus 24 for instance, are of the salon variety. Others, disputing Sibelius's comments, hint at Finnish associations, the Kyllikki trilogy (1904) invoking Lemminkäinen's maiden in the Kalevala. The ‘Tree’ pieces, Opus 75 (1914), look to the lake-land woods that surrounded Sibelius's rural home, Ainola – contrasting MacDowell's trees, though, the sunlight still makes it to the forest floor, however dark and icy the trunks and branches. Old curves and melodic sinews, refined and distilled, aphoristically aligned, pervade the Sonatina (1912 – such a hypnotic, lean Finale) and late Sketches (1929 – pastoral, reflective pen-and-inks). At his Barbican Hall recital last year Andsnes spun magic with the two Opus 5 Impromptus (1890-93) included here: the B-minor glitters (Sibelian kantele before Lisztian cimbalom); the E-major/minor (repeat taken) lingers indefinitely, taking courage and mastery to sustain its span and cantabile at such a deliberated tempo (shared with Håvard Gimse on Naxos, like Andsnes a former student of Jiří Hlinka).
If a lesser case seems to be made for the Valse triste – despite some tweaking of Sibelius's arrangement (on the evidence of a 1941 letter a licence the composer apparently encouraged) – maybe it's because Andsnes has difficulty getting his Steinway, creamily voiced though it is, to sufficiently bind the melody-octaves to suggest sustained, muted violins. Maybe his more agile figurations are a touch too placed and 'tea room' Edwardian in veneer. Or maybe Paavo Järvi's defining, haunting way with this Todesstück (Seoul 2011 was special) has become impossible to get out of my head. It's a tricky number, whatever the medium.
John Fraser producing, Arne Akselberg engineering and Julia Thomas editing ensure quality production values, with a lush yet clear sound and maximum keyboard clarity. Andrew Mellor contributes a thoughtful booklet essay.