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Leif Ove Andsnes Proves Sibelius' Piano Music Sings

Photo: Partial of album cover

This composer didn't like the piano. This pianist is suspicious of the music's accessibility. Hopefully you'll see through both sentiments.

Leif Ove Andsnes

Sony Classical

1 Sep 2017

The composer Jean Sibelius infamously said that the piano "doesn't sing". This attitude certainly doesn't account for the Sibelius piano pieces that rival Ravel in terms of making the piano "sing". "Impromptu V", a selection which acclaimed pianist Leif Ove Andsnes uses begin his latest album Sibelius, rides on breezy neo-Romantic/impressionistic wave that helps you forget that the piano is the vehicle for the idea. And this is an "Impromptu"! If Sibelius could pull a Beethoven by turning his improvisations into such rich compositions, why the hell did he ever assert that the piano "doesn't sing"?

This dismissal of the piano has meant that Sibelius's piano repertoire tends to get overlooked in favor of his other works. When you hear Leif Ove Andsnes tackle these 24 solo piano pieces, it's not hard to be bewildered by their neglect. If "The Nutcracker" was one of Tchaikovsky's least favorite works, how come that one gets done to death every December while Sibelius's piano music falls by the wayside? Whatever the reasons, the composer's crappy PR skills probably being one of them, Andsnes follows Glenn Gould's example by trying to reintroduce the world to such intimately lovely pieces.

Sibelius's selections run through all of the traits that the Romantic-era piano had to offer -- foreboding chords that build suspense within their slow, deliberate paces, melodies hidden inside of frightening cadences, and complex modes that somehow can't intimidate a music theory layman even on their worst day. Like Debussy and Ravel, Sibelius's piano work embodied late Romantic melodic figures with beautifully vague impressionist harmonies. Among the multi-movement pieces recorded are the "Kyllikki" lyric pieces, the composer's "Sonatina No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor", "6 Bagatelles", and "Five Sketches" (or "5 Esquisses Op. 114", if you prefer the original French titles). Andsnes brings a delicate touch to the studio, never laboring to put his own imprint on the music. Granted, the only other recording of piano music by Sibelius that I own is by Risto Lauriala, and his readings of the same pieces is just as reverent.

Leif Ove Andsnes's take on the nature of the music threatens to be as self-defeating as Jean Sibelius's remarks about the piano: "It inhabits a private world; it is almost not for the public, but something to play for a friend, or even alone." Not for the public? How can Sony Classical move CDs and downloads based on that testimony? Sibelius and Andsnes need to stop letting their words get in the way of such touching music, before it gets neglected all over again. But if the Sibelius collection is of any indication, composer and performer alike have done the heavy lifting. The ball is firmly in the court of the consumer/listener. So let's do the right thing, shall we?

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