Notes from Finland

International Piano, May/June 2015

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, a remarkable artist whose piano works deserve greater praise, writes pianist Joseph Tong

Last Summer as part of my research for my Sibelius disc for the Quartz label, I came across a recording of the Japanese pianist Izumi Tateno performing Sibelius on the composer’s Steinway at Ainola. The beauty and originality of the music aroused my curiosity and I quickly set about acquiring scores – a mission that resulted in a rewarding voyage of musical discovery.

Arriving at Ainola early one morning during the July heatwave, I was thrilled
to be given special permission to play the composer’s beautifully maintained Steinway. To feel the keys under my fingers was both humbling and exhilarating.
Later the same day, I took a train to Hämeenlinna, the birthplace of Sibelius (the house where the composer was born on 8 December 1865 is now a museum). 

Among other items on display, I was fascinated to see the original upright piano
(complete with candelabra which Sibelius used for his practice from the mid-1870s
onwards, as well as an autograph score of the opening bars of Finlandia. 

In this article, I will restrict myself to writing about the repertoire on the Quartz disc, which I will also be performing in an all-Sibelius solo piano recital at St
John’s Smith Square this spring. With the possible exception of the early Sonata
in F major of 1893, Kyllikki Op 41 (1904) is probably Sibelius’s most significant
large-scale piano work of more than one movement. There is no complete certainty
of its connection with the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, but it can nonetheless
be seen as a triptych portraying Kyllikki and her three successive states of mind.
Whereas Kyllikki marks the end of Sibelius’s national romantic period, The Trees (1914) is a fine example of his later, highly cultivated piano style. Impressionist and expressionist influences are detectable in these exquisite nature-inspired miniatures. The fragility of the gradually unfolding right-hand melody suggests the
long-awaited flowering of the mountain ash (When the Mountain Ash Blooms), while the absolute steadfastness of the pine tree (The Solitary Fir Tree) was at the time interpreted as a symbol of Finland standing firm against Russian influence. Within the third piece, The Aspen, there is a growing harmonic ambiguity and an increasingly inward-looking expression. Of particular note are the tremolo passages, perhaps depicting branches quivering in the icy breeze, and the mournful ‘cello’ theme with its sparse accompanying chords. The Birch is the most energetic piece of the set, the favourite tree of the Finns, which ‘stands so white’. The rich tenor register is the natural
home for The Spruce’s slow waltz theme,
answered by an equally poignant melody
in the soprano before the sudden, dramatic
arpeggiations of the Risoluto section recall
the inner determination and strength of
The Solitary Fir Tree.
The Flowers Op 85 is an
indispensable companion set to
The Trees. Bellis (daisy or daisies) is musicbox-like in style, using the white keys of
the piano and tiny, pinpointed staccatos to
depict perhaps a cluster of daisies sparkling
in the spring breeze. Oeillet (‘Carnation’)
is more overtly romantic, a beautiful waltz
with a brief minor variation and whimsical,
decorative passages in the upper melody. Iris
has a more improvisatory feel and serious
character, with its nuanced, leggiero runs
Notes from Finland
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, a remarkable artist whose
piano works deserve greater praise, writes pianist Joseph Tong
Joseph Tong pictured
outside the home of Jean Sibelius
May/June 2015 International Piano 61
and delicate trills, while No 4, Snapdragon,
has a rhythmically taut opening theme
and later reveals some Schumannesque
accompaniments and harmonic sequences.
Campanula begins with a succession of
reverberating bells in the form of split
octaves in the treble, later conveying a
more nostalgic mood through ruminative
arpeggiations and expressive appoggiaturas
before ending poignantly with distant,
repeated bells in the top register.
The first of Sibelius’s three Sonatinas
Op 67 heralds a noticeable change in
style. It opens with a joyful, sparsely
harmonised theme and expresses a wealth
of musical ideas, through pithy twopart writing and other extraordinarily
economical means. The work’s slow
movement is particularly beautiful and
provides its emotional core. The quirky
and pianistically challenging finale
is characterised by some unexpected
harmonic diversions, an agitated minor
key melody in the left hand set against a
recurring, somewhat unsettling broken
octave accompaniment in the high register.
The two Rondinos Op 68 (1912) are
also distinctive and notable in a stylistic
sense, similarly dating from Sibelius’s
period of ‘modern classicism’. The G sharp
minor Andantino is full of questioning
pauses, sighing motifs and extremely
delicate, pianissimo winding melodies.
Its companion piece is remarkable for its
sharp dissonances and waspish humour,
together with nimble right hand tremolo
effects (in tenths) resembling stringcrossings on the violin.
The Five Romantic Pieces Op 101 (1923-
1924) reveal a richer handling of the
piano and Sibelius’s growing preference
for orchestral sonorities, with occasional
similarities to the Sixth Symphony. The
opening Romance was written in a suitably
tender, heartfelt vein as a reconciliation
gift to his wife Aino. Chant du soir, on the
other hand, is more succinct and less lavish
in texture and harmony, though no less
touching in its overall effect. A serenely
unfolding Andante introduction to Scène
lyrique gives not a hint of what is to come;
a rapid, polka-like Vivace which rattles
along in a violinistic fashion. Burlesque is
full of swagger and comical touches such
as teasing harmonic twists and hilarious
‘crushed-note’ chords, closing with a lighthearted, scampering coda. Calm is restored
with the dignified and beautifully crafted
Scène romantique, in which Sibelius shows
his mastery of the miniature forms and
paces the moment where the imagined
reconciliation occurs to perfection.
Sibelius’s Esquisses (1929) are the last
pieces that he composed for solo piano.
Remarkably, these were not published until
1973 and are still not very widely known.
Written towards the end of the composer’s
last active creative period, they explore
modal tonality and other compositional
devices such as tonal meditation (for
example in Forest Lake) while reflecting
an increasingly personal response to
nature, coupled with a bold, more radical
approach to harmony. For me, the most
striking of the set are Forest Lake and
Song in the Forest. Beyond the immediate
pictorial associations there lurks a darker,
more disturbing undercurrent and blurred
edges are perhaps what the composer had
in mind when considering the important
role of the sustaining pedal in both pieces.
Finally, Spring Vision has a deceptively
straightforward opening but its restless
Animoso theme also suggests that a feeling
of springlike optimism may be no more
than fleeting.
frequently performed of Sibelius’s
orchestral transcriptions is his
celebrated version of Finlandia Op 26
(1899-1900). In addition to virtuoso
semiquaver flourishes, double octave
cascades and swirling arpeggiations,
Sibelius also uses the different registers
of the piano to great effect in recreating
something of the warmth of the string
sound in the hushed, cantabile ‘hymntheme’ and its subsequent development.
There is also something irresistibly spinetingling about launching into Finlandia’s
powerful opening chords, complete with
menacing tremolos, on a full-size concert
grand, and the translation of the tone poem
to the sound world of the piano seems to
work very successfully.
Whatever the underlying reasons for
the relative neglect of Sibelius’s piano
music, I hope that this year’s anniversary
celebrations will prompt a resurgence
of interest in this rich seam of repertoire
which spans virtually the entire period of
Sibelius’s creative life. 