Leif Ove Andsnes: Sibelius
It was the late Charles Rosen who insisted that the only way music becomes established as part of a living repertory is through musicians wanting to perform it. Leif Ove Andsnes is at pains not to claim too much: Sibelius’s piano music ‘inhabits a private world, it is almost not for the public, but something to play for a friend, or even alone’; but his taste and cultivated musicianship have come together to promote an aspect of Sibelius’s output that has customarily been regarded as not worth the bother. Of 117 opus numbers, 19 denote works for solo piano, and Andsnes is on a mission to bring the best of them out of the shadows. He made this recording in Berlin a year ago, and Sony has given him excellent sound. His advocacy is strong and pitched just right, and I’ve been won over willingly and rather unexpectedly, perhaps because like most people I tend to accept received ideas too unquestioningly. Sibelius was a giant and all the tracks here contribute to our knowledge of him.
He was a violinist, not a pianist, and careful selection has been necessary. The piano was always in his life even though it was only a helpmate at times, through his improvising, to orchestral composition. He did himself no favours by sometimes speaking disparagingly of it, and he never seems to have regarded it as a friend. Andsnes has examined every published note, rejecting what is uneven, and he has been bold enough, here and there, to ‘help him a little’ – in the composer’s own arrangement of his Valse triste of 1904, for instance. There is documentary evidence that Sibelius was not above accepting help from accomplished players, though no one appears to have been able to do anything for his ambitious Sonata in F, which continues to attract widespread agreement as a no-go area.
Make your discoveries, and at first perhaps do not expect too much; the recital builds. The surfaces of the pieces may be apparently simple but they can turn into something surprising and characteristic thanks to a sensibility that is interesting and rich. No one else could have written them. The references you sometimes catch to other composers Sibelius liked – Schumann, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev even – are an attraction. In the later sets you latch on straight away to his emancipation from all 19th-century models, and the austere beauty and rare atmosphere of his mature manner are to be savoured. I had a copy of the Sonatina in F sharp minor as a student but made little of it then; in the context of this recital, arranged chronologically, Andsnes makes an ideal case for its unorthodoxy and private world.
Andrew Mellor has interesting points to make in the booklet but I wish it were set out more clearly. Besides the numbered track-listings there is a thicket of opus numbers to negotiate as well as timings and movement titles in three languages. For dates of composition you have to go to the text. A curious and serious omission are the dates of Sibelius’s life, which are nowhere to be found.