Sibelius: Valse triste

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LABELS: Triton
WORKS: Valse triste, Op. 44 No. 1; Impromptu in B minor, Op. 5, No. 5; Ten Pieces, Op. 58; Five Pieces, Op. 85; Five romantic pieces, Op. 101; Five Esquisses, Op. 114
PERFORMER: Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)

Russian by birth and Icelandic by citizenship, Vladimir Ashkenazy can be said – despite his current tenure with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – to have a northern musical outlook. A noted interpreter of Sibelius’s symphonies, here he returns to the piano to explore some obscure corners of the composer’s output. The piano never figured importantly for Sibelius: he sometimes resented having to write for it, and his lack of developed keyboard technique made several pieces sound more awkward than original. Instead of the somewhat better-known Sonata, three Sonatinas or the Kalevala-inspired Kyllikki, we hear several groups of miniatures spanning the whole of his creative life.
Ashkenazy frames his programme with two performances of the Valse triste, the second on the composer’s own piano at Ainola, and neither are helped by recorded sound that is a little flat. One of the Op. 5 Impromptus, composed in 1893, connects us to the Ten Pieces Op. 58, written just before the bleak Fourth Symphony. The Five Pieces Op. 85, which preceded the Sixth, are juxtaposed with the Five Romantic Pieces Op. 101, which overlapped with the Seventh. Dating from 1929, the Five Esquisses, Op. 114, were almost the last music written before Sibelius’s long silence: though sparse of texture, they can surely sound less blunt than Ashkenazy makes them here. John Allison