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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Piano Works

Five Characteristic Impressions, Op. 103: The Village Church; The Fiddler; The Oarsman; The Storm; In Mournful Mood
Kyllikki (Three Lyric Pieces), Op. 41: Largamente; Andantino; Commodo
Five Esquisses, Op. 114: Landscape; Winter Scene; Forest Lake; Song in the Forest; Spring Vision
Piano Sonata, Op. 12: Allegro moderato; Andantino; Allegro pochettino moderato
Five Pieces (The Flowers), Op. 85: Bellis; Oeillet; Iris; Aquileja; Campanula
Rondinos, Op. 68: Rondino No. 1; Rondino No. 2;
Finlandia, Op. 26/7

Eero Heinonen, piano
Recorded 1995-2000
WARNER APEX 2564-60114-2 [78:45]

Comparisons: Gimse/Naxos, Mustonen/Ondine

There are two points concerning the piano music of Sibelius that I feel need to be kept in mind. One is that the piano was not a natural instrument for Sibelius to communicate his musical thoughts. The other is that his ability to write appealing music extended to his piano compositions. Merging the two points results in attractive music that does not reflect the masterful orchestral works and symphonies that Sibelius composed.

Sibelius wrote most of his piano music in response to financial requirements, while his strongest concentration was saved for his large-scale works. The variable quality of the piano music is apparent in any recorded program, ranging from disjointed and rambling pieces to music of dramatic substance and pieces that delight and sparkle. However, you will not find any hidden masterpieces, as the works do not plumb deep emotional issues or offer the structural coherence found in the works of outstanding composers for the piano.

A few weeks ago I reviewed for MusicWeb Volume 4 of Håvard Gimseís traversal of the Sibelius piano music on Naxos, finding the performances warm and loving. The new entrant in this repertoire is a Warner Apex reissue of performances by Eero Heinonen recorded in the late 1990s. Heinonenís program is a fine one that highlights the more serious and extended piano works of Sibelius. The program includes the Opus 12 Piano Sonata and the piano arrangement of Finlandia. There is also "Kyllikki", a series of three pieces among the more serious of Sibeliusís output.

Overall Heinonen imparts greater substance to this music than Gimse for Naxos. As an example, "Campanula" from Op. 85 receives a flat and anonymous reading from Gimse, while Heinonen offers a variety of colors and sonorities that makes the music come alive. Also, Heinonenís soundstage is exceptional with fine richness and clarity; Gimseís sound is excellent but somewhat glassy in the higher registers.

Heinonen begins his program with the Five Characteristic Pieces, Op. 103. This is an excellent start as "The Village Church" has a ceremonial first theme perfect for ushering in a recorded program. The piece also has a strong impressionist element that can also be found in many of the other higher opus numbered works. The gem of the Opus 103 pieces is "The Oarsman" which has a Spanish flavor and flourish to it that reminds me of the uplifting piano music of Enrique Granados.

The most extended work on the recording is the Opus 12 Piano Sonata with its nostalgic and lovely "Andantino" having delightfully perky and pristine passages for exceptional contrast. Also on the extended agenda is the arrangement of Finlandia that works fairly well in its piano guise. The rumbling of the bass chords at the beginning of the piece is highly effective in Heinonenís hands, and he also fully captures the workís poignancy.

I would have no problem citing Heinonenís disc as the best single-disc recording of Sibeliusís piano music on the market but for the Olli Mustonen offering from Ondine. Mustonen is on a higher plane altogether with his wonderful rhythmic elasticity and sharper contours. Although the two discs only have in common the Opus 68 Rondinos, Mustonenís greater verve and emotional breadth reveals additional emotional layers only hinted at by Heinonen. For instance, Heinonen prioritizes the mystery and lush properties of the Rondino No. 1. Mustonen also offers these qualities but adds suspense and urgency through changes in dynamics and the highlighting of musical suspensions.

In summary, this newly reissued Warner Apex disc is an excellent representation of the piano music of Sibelius. I think it likely that most readers would want only one or two recordings of the particular repertoire. Acquiring the Heinonen and Mustonen discs is an excellent route to take, especially since the two only have about five minutes of music in common. For those desirous of the complete body of piano works, Håvard Gimseís Naxos recordings should fully satisfy except for some loss in substance. Erik T. Tawaststjerna on BIS offers another fine cycle, but the Naxos price tag is considerably lower with performances as rewarding as on the BIS recordings.

I want to emphasize that Sibeliusís piano music is not essential except for ardent piano enthusiasts and those who must have every note he wrote. However, the piano music is certainly appealing in it own right and well above the level of pleasant background music.

Don Satz


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