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"The Essential Sibelius"

BIS-CD-1697/1700 [TT: 1152 mins]

(full track details not given here, but available on line at


Sampling this CDs box - "15 for the price of 4" - and avoiding those canonic works which to many of us would constitute "The Essential Sibelius", I am meeting significant surprises.

So far the Piano Trio is the big discovery, fresh and quite undeserving of its long time burial; there is also a delicious cheeky March d'Asis La Pompeuse as a sure-fire encore piece. Likewise the A minor String Quartet of a couple of years later, limpid music scored with a sure understanding of the medium; how on earth did it fall into obscurity? [Most of us would not have known that there were others besides the Voces Intimae, which receives a fine, urgent performance here by the Tempera Quartet. It was once played not infrequently, less so in recent years; I used to have the Griller Quartet's early (first?) recording on 78s.]

The Wood Nymph
(1895), a substantial 22 mins. orchestral tone poem of Sibelius' early maturity (between Kullervo and the Leminkainen Legends) and Snofrid (1900), an evocative work for mixed chorus, speaker and orchestra, will certainly be worth hearing in concert.

The performances and sound quality are all to BIS' expected high standard and I have no fear that the recordings of the major masterpieces will fall far behind.

There are certainly keen collectors who will wish Robert von Bahr and Andrew Barnett well to complete their dream to record "every note Sibelius ever wrote" (an intégrale to challenge those of Bach & Mozart) and maybe others who think it a questionable objective.

Record enthusiasts can perhaps be divided along a spectrum between two extremes; those who concentrate on collecting and comparing many versions of favourite masterworks, and others who want to hear and get to know as much music from all periods and the whole globe as a lifetime can allow - exemplified by my own accumulation of five thousand CDs and DVDs, and the 78s, LPs and cassettes acquired before them...

Readers' responses to the BIS "The Essential Sibelius" will be most welcome, and we hope to publish reviews of some more of the individual CDs. I accept the collection as being, at bargain price, a highly desirable acquisition towards a 21st Century revaluation of Sibelius.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Suplementary reviews by other writers will follow.

Piano works

Folke Grasbecj, Erik Tawaststjerna (piano)


I dislike the piano — it is an unsatisfactory, ungrateful instrument, an instrument for which only one composer, Chopin, has succeeded in writing perfectly, and of which only two others, Debussy and Schumann, have had an intimate understanding. (Jean Sibelius to Walter Legge)


So are his piano works a poor relation? Yes, they lack the grandeur, the nationalistic ‘edge' and the challenge of the famous orchestral pieces. Sibelius was unambitious as to the colours and forms of piano writing; there is nothing of the otherness we hear in works as familiar as Finlandia and the fifth and seventh symphonies. He did not work out the stylistic conflicts of classicism and romantic nationalism within piano forms. Partly this is from historical context; Biedermeier values persisted in Finnish society, many homes had a piano and a demand for easy domestic pieces.


The oeuvre, from which this disc provides an excellent selection, is nevertheless very pleasant listening; they would grace any collection of lyric pieces (the well-known Kyllikki, Op 41, carries that subtitle). Tchaikovsky was an acknowledged influence on Sibelius, some of these pieces could be inserted in a collection of his, or of Grieg's without seeming in the least out of place. Among pianists, Glenn Gould was an unlikely champion of Sibelius, asserting he ‘never wrote against the grain of the piano.'


Of the two pianists, Grasbeck is the more dramatic, and the Florestan collection that opens the disc is especially attractive. Tawaststjerna is the calmer, and his unobtrusive performances of the sonatinas are very satisfying, as is his atmospheric Kyllikki .


Of course comprehensive surveys exist, not least on Naxos ; but this disc is a really fine introduction.


Ying Chang

(For a gargantuan review of the whole set and complete track lists, see Rob Barnett on Music Web)