Monday 8 June 2015

I cannot think of a better way for BIS to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth than this terrific new disc with Folke Gräsbeck playing the composer’s own Steinway at Ainola

This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and it is the 100th anniversary of the presentation of the Steinway still kept at his house Ainola. Given as a 50th birthday present, it was paid for by 144 of Sibelius’ supporters. 

BIS Records have now released a new recording featuring Folke Gräsbeck playing this historic but well maintained instrument in the original  setting of the drawing room at Ainola.

BIS - 2132

All the members of the Sibelius family played on this grand piano with the composer himself mainly playing it at night when he was trying out his compositional ideas. The instrument was used by Wilhelm Kempff when he gave private recitals for the Sibelius household in 1923 and by Kosti Vehanen when Marian Anderson sang to the composer in 1933. Sibelius himself played the orchestral parts of his violin concerto on the piano when Isaac Stern played the concerto at Ainola in 1951 and it was on this instrument that Emil Gilels played Shostakovich's preludes and fugues to Sibelius in 1952. 

The piano’s life at Ainola was nearly cut short when bailiffs laid claim to it soon after the birthday celebrations, but a collection organised by Ida Ekman helped to prevent it from being taken away. Sibelius always seemed to be in financial difficulties. 

Although they are mainly short in duration, Sibelius seems to have retained affection for his piano pieces and they are well worth hearing especially played as well as this on Sibelius’ own instrument. 

Folke Gräsbeck brings a thoughtful, finely phrased performance of the Andantino in B major, JS44 (1888) that opens this recital. There is a nicely sprung Allegretto in B flat minor, JS18 (1888) before the world premiere recording of the manuscript of the Largo in A major, JS117 (1888) preserved at Kesalahti near Joensuu, regarded as the final version of the work. Folke Gräsbeck overcomes a certain lack of focus of the instrument with phrasing and articulation that bring out some fine moments not to mention some beautifully fluent passages towards the end.

Gräsbeck chooses two pieces from the Six Impromptus, Op. 5 (1893). No. 2 in G minor soon rises in a finely played rhythmic theme with this pianist providing more finely fluent playing. No. 5 in B minor finds rippling right hand swirls over a left hand theme as this lovely piece opens, revealed here as a very entrancing and engaging piece. 

Two pieces from 10 Pieces Op. 24 follow, No. 3 Caprice (1898), wonderfully free and fluent and No. 9 Romance in D flat major (1901), powerfully wrought with finely controlled dynamics, picking up all Sibelius’ emotional pull.

Such a recital would not be complete without the composer’s own piano transcription of Finlandia, Op. 26 (1899, revised 1900). Perhaps here, above all, one can imagine Sibelius trying over his new composition though, of course, neither the venue nor the instrument would have been available to him then.  Gräsbeck builds through some terrific passages, brilliantly handled and when the big tune emerges, what a joy it is in this direct yet poetic performance.

The Musette, Op. 27, No. 3 (1898) from the music to Adolf Paul’s play King Christian II is revealed here as an exquisite little piano piece although probably better known to many in its orchestral guise. It is played here with great subtlety.

The very brief but charming (Polka) 'Aino' in C Minor (1902-05) is followed by Valse Triste, Op. 44, No. 1 (1903, revised 1904) from the music for Arvid Järnefelt’s play Kuolema. There is a gentle opening to the hesitant little waltz before it slowly develops with confidence, Gräsbeck handling all of Sibelius’ mood and tempi changes so well. 

This pianist then brings the composer’s own piano transcription from 1907 of Pan and Echo, Op. 53 (1906) beautifully played with lovely phrasing and care of dynamics before it rises in tempo with some fine rhythmic passages. 

Rondino in G sharp minor, Op. 68, No. 1 (1912) is a lovely, thoughtful, beautifully laid out piece that contains much feeling in its relatively short length before a rather nostalgic Granen (The Spruce) Op. 75, No. 5 (1914, revised 1919) with some beautifully fluent flourishes later in the piece.

Gräsbeck takes five pieces from 13 Pieces, Op 76 in chronological order, opening with a lively, buoyant, nicely sprung No. 2 Etude (1911) before a fleet, fast moving
No. 9. Arabesque (1914) played with such a light touch. The lovely No. 10 Elegiaco (1916) is beautifully shaped whilst the fleeting No. 12 Capriccietto (1914) again receives a lovely light touch. Finally there is a lively and changeable No. 13 Harlequinade (1916) with Gräsbeck finding all the characteristics of Harlequin and providing a great little coda.

All 5 Pieces (The Flowers) Op. 85 are given here with a delicate, lively Bellis (The Daisy) (1917) where this pianist finds a lovely touch, an attractive Œillet (The Carnation) (1916) that seems to look backwards and Iris (The Iris) (1916) with some lovely sparklingly fluent passages. Aquilejia (The Columbine) (1917) proves to be a particularly fine piece, beautifully played before Campanula (The Campanula) (1917) that is full of lovely moments. 

2 Pieces for Oscar Parviainen (1919) were for his artist friend. The Andantino, JS201, like many of the pieces on this disc, is a really lovely little miniature to which this pianist brings a lovely feel. Con Passione, JS53 brings a forthright character full of joy. 

8 Short Pieces Op. 99 (1922) are represented here by a gentle reflective No. 3 Souvenir full of nostalgic and No. 7 Moment De Valse, light and straightforward yet wholly attractive. One can’t help but think that Sibelius found a real joy in writing such a piece as this.

Scène Romantique, Op. 101, No. 5 (1923 - 24) has a slow leisurely opening with a nostalgic air before gaining a fine flowing pace whereas The Village Church, Op. 103, No. 1 (1923 - 24) opens with bell like phrases and sonorities before a very Sibelian melody appears. One can easily imagine Sibelius improvising.

The final work on this disc is Landscape II (1928 – 29). It is a particularly strong piece, quite forward looking in its harmonies and structure, finely felt here by this pianist with a lovely quiet coda. 

Whilst I have already commented on the lack of focus of the instrument, this would be to totally miss the point. Here we have a fine pianist playing Sibelius on the composer’s own instrument in the composer’s own home. BIS have already done so much for the music of Sibelius so I cannot think of a better way for them to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth than this disc.

At a playing time of over 80 minutes this is a generously filled disc. There are excellent notes by Andrew Barnett. Surely all lovers of Sibelius will want to have this new release.

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