Sibelius piano works performed by Janne Mertanen

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COMPOSERS: Jean Sibelius
LABELS: Sony
ALBUM TITLE: Sibelius
WORKS: Piano works
PERFORMER: Janne Mertanen (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Sony 88875161422

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It’s fair enough that those with a vested interest in Sibelius’s piano music want to give it more visibility than it has had before. This collection of all the published piano works with opus numbers comes a with a comprehensive booklet note (by Antti Häyrynen); sensibly, this doesn’t make excessive claims regarding what is, with exceptions, a mediocre area of Sibelius’s output.

Does a fair and thorough re-hearing lead to a change of view? Hardly. Sibelius could turn out several piano pieces of his preferred, small or small-ish, low-ambition variety in a day or so. He himself entertainingly referred to them as ‘sandwiches’ for his daughters, another way of saying that they were written for money – and also, surely, as a kind of creative antidote to his often mighty struggles with his major works. The default position here is a kind of engaging airiness, offering little besides. Just sometimes, there’s a quality example of Sibelius’s urbane streak – as in the 13 Piano Pieces Op. 76, featuring the bell-sounds of ‘Carillon’, the JanáΩek-like lyrical touch of ‘Linnaea’ (a memory of childhood flower-collecting), or the high-speed flickering single line of the tiny ‘Capriccietto’, a moment of semi-radical experiment. The early Sonata Op. 12, and the central movement of the suite Kylliki, convincingly suggest a more expansive, ballade-like manner which find yourself wishing Sibelius had explored further. In the same way the concluding set of Five Sketches, Op. 114, completed in 1929 (ie after his last orchestral masterwork Tapiola), seems to be searching out new, Scriabin-like territory – another pianistic journey that remained unfinished.

What makes this set something special isn’t so much the music as the top-flight artistry of its performer. Janne Mertanen’s playing offers penetrating lyrical focus, a mesmerising range of keyboard colours, and an instinct for shaping one outwardly bland phrase after another in a way that always feels alive – as in the Romance Op. 10 No. 9, whose repeated opening pattern of D-flat chords and simple left-hand melody here have you thinking: Rachmaninov would have played it like that.

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Malcolm Hayes