Sibelius: Eight pieces, op. 99

performed by Eero Heinonen, or below by someone who may or not be the same person

(cover image by Dennis Buchner)

It’s unlikely that when you hear Sibelius’ name, you think of anything he wrote for piano. Whether it’s any of his symphonies, the magnificent  violin concerto, Kullervo, his Lemminkäinen suite, or another symphonic work, these are where the man made his name.

As for piano pieces, there’s obviously no concerto; there’s a sonata, and I think probably quite a bit more solo piano work, sketches and suites and collections like this, than I’m aware of, but as a member of the (mostly) general population, I’m almost entirely unaware of them.

What does Sibelius’ piano music sound like? That’s a bigger topic than is suitable for this article, and maybe when we get around to his sonata we can discuss it, but I did read someone, I think a pianist who recorded his entire piano output or something, commented that the Famous Finn’s piano music lacks nothing, that it doesn’t have any of the perceived deficiencies that some say it does.

Regardless, it seems that in and around 1922, when this little set of pieces was published, the composer had been having some financial troubles. Whether that is the reason for the uncharacteristic nature (or some may even say mediocrity) of this set or not, I cannot say. Maybe this is a poor choice of piano music from Sibelius as it is not indicative of his style, but in many places, I hear more Chopin than Sibelius.

The work, as the title suggests, has eight pieces, as follows:

  1. Pièce humoristique
  2. Esquisse
  3. Souvenir
  4. Impromptu
  5. Couplet
  6. Animoso
  7. Moment de valse
  8. Petite marche

We’ll do the same thing we did yesterday, with just some notes in passing about each one, because, while I’ll admit I may not have given this set the attention I did some of the others, I also was just not compelled to.

  1. I’m interested to know what’s humorous about this. It is maybe the thing that is most Sibelius-esque, with a certain folksy charm, something that you might overhear from the living room if you were making coffee in the kitchen at Ainola. Perhaps it’s just that the composer himself didn’t take it very seriously, but I find it perfectly charming.
  2. ‘Esquisse’ means (I think) sketch. This is a perfectly pianistic sound, the kind of idiom you might expect from an excited Brahms. It strikes this listener as a simple, unadorned thought, maybe originally sprouting from that splashy keyboard sound between the two hands.
  3. ‘Memory’ – Sibelius certainly embodies a kind of melancholy, or at least the dark hues and intensity of a place that experiences the kind of winters that Finland does. However, the particular flavor of melancholy in this piece, while effective and inspired, strikes me far more as that of Chopin than any Finn.
  4. Sibelius-esque salon music. There’s joy and playfulness here, even perhaps a little celebration, as the ground thaws, maybe, but the Romantic Chopin-esque idiom is unmistakable.
  5. Couplet, as in poetry? This isn’t the kind of poetry I’d expect Sibelius to write, and while I hear more Romantic composers’ spirits in this music, I wonder if even contemporary listeners found this a little uncharacteristic of him.
  6. Animoso and animato are basically the same, right? It is again rather cheerful, actually very ebullient and spirited, almost like a drinking song, one of the more instantly charming of the set.
  7. Thankfully, maybe, this ‘valse’ is only a ‘moment’ long. It carries the same kind of salon spirit as, say, a Chopin mazurka, but as meaningless as it is to compare, this waltz has less than a fraction of the charm than the waltzes we heard from Brahms or Ravel or others.
  8. This little march is also identifiable as a march, but feels then that it actually even begins to get to a kind of Mozart Turkish sound, almost banal…

I know I sound like I’m being critical here, but despite the fact that I’d never in a million years guess that this was from Sibelius’ pen, it does show his capability as a composer, that he has a solid handle on that particular idiom, even if he chose, throughout most of his career, not to use it, and that in itself is worth taking note of.

 

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