Why is Sibelius's piano music so neglected?

Leif Ove Andsnes Fri 29th September 2017

Leif Ove Andsnes champions the composer's keyboard music

Leif Ove Andsnes: champion of Sibelius's piano music (photo: Gregor Hohenberg)

I am fascinated by famous composers who have areas of music that are unknown, not only to the general audience but even to musicians and people in our field. This is especially the case with piano music, and no wonder! After all, there is so much piano music and there are so many pianist-composers who have written for the piano. On top of which, the popularity of the instrument is such that non-pianist composers have written for the piano too. I think the piano works by these non-pianist composers, like Sibelius and Dvořák, are the most easily neglected. Dvořák wrote some beautiful piano music that nobody hears. But with Sibelius I’ve been thinking for years that I really needed to find out what was there. I feel the music so personally and have loved his symphonic works from very early in my career, being introduced to them by great conductors like Paavo Berglund who opened up an incredible world to me. It’s nearly impossible for me to hear Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony without crying! It goes straight to the core of my being. So I needed to explore his piano pieces too.

Two events made me even more determined to do so. First of all, the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel issued new editions of all Sibelius’s pieces in three big books. And my Norwegian colleague and friend Håvard Gimse recorded all of his music on five CDs for Naxos. I listened to some of those recordings and looked methodically through all the sheet music. Sibelius wrote 150 piano pieces! But, as I discovered, it is more uneven than his orchestral music. He had such a way with the orchestral medium, whereas he famously stated that 'the piano cannot sing!' And indeed, in quite a few of the pieces, you do feel that it’s difficult for him to make the instrument come alive. But every second or third piece DOES sing on its own terms and the music shines through with such a strong voice. It has harmonic ambiguity, haunting melodic material, and fascinatingly irregular phrasing and meters. As a listener you are kept guessing, even if the piece seems simple on the surface.

Maybe Sibelius never developed a distinct, personal piano style but it is nonetheless with great talent that he steals ideas from others. You experience this in his early piano works, the Six Impromptus, Op 5, where you feel the influence of Liszt and French music. The Romance from Op 24 could easily be mistaken for a piece by Tchaikovsky. Kyllikki, Op 41, has anarchistic ideas like those of Mussorgsky, and in the last movement Sibelius seems to want to write a piece à la Schumann. From his middle period, in the Sonatinas, Op 67, he is going for total transparency, a kind of neoclassical style à la Scarlatti that is fascinating. In that context, when he inserts a rich harmony it means so much.

And then for me somehow everything comes together in Sibelius’s Op 114 Sketches, his last pieces for piano, written between his Sixth and Seventh symphonies. Suddenly he is opening up new sounds on the piano. The Sketches are full of beautiful sonorities and middle voices, and are horizontally alive. Everything sings in these pieces, everything blooms! For me, this is perhaps his most personal opus, where the medium of the piano doesn’t seem to be a hindrance for him whatsoever. With these pieces, perhaps he found his piano voice after all!

Leif Ove Andsnes's album of Sibelius's piano music is available on Sony Classical. You can hear him play some of Sibelius's piano music in the video below.

Leif Ove Andsnes will also be playing a number of Sibelius works from the album in his European-wide recital tour, running from October until early December. Find out more, including venues and dates, at his website

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