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Saturday, October 8, 2011

CD Review: Sibelius, Distilled

The Second, Fifth Symphonies in piano transcription.
Flying Finn: pianist Henri Sigfridsson.
Photo by Marco Borggreve. © 2011 Henri Sigfridsson/Ondine Classics.
The difficult art of turning a full orchestral symphony into a bravura work for solo piano is most often associated with the composer-pianist Franz Liszt, who transcribed the nine Beethoven symphonies into finger-busting exercises in order to please his public and publishers.

On this new disc, pianist Henri Sigfridsson chose two of Sibelius' seven symphonies: the Second and the Fifth. In the case of each work, the results make for compelling listening. This is the Finnish pianist's second disc of piano transcriptions of Sibelius works. (An earlier release on Hanssler Classics features some of the composer's tone poems and incidental music.)

Hearing a symphonic score rebuilt for the piano often allows the listener to experience fresh details of tone and color that may be obscured by the wash of strings or the stentorian force of brass. For Sibelius, whose compositional style is focused on simplicity and clarity, the transcription process sharpens each musical idea to a diamond edge.

In the case of the Second, (one of Sibelius' more optimistic symphonies) the whole first movement is built around a stuttering figure in the left hand and an answering folk-dance played with the right. The naturalistic rhythms of the symphony spring to life across the piano keyboard, as Mr. Sigfridsson plays the transcription with taut rhythms and attention to the key details in the score.

The middle movements of this symphony detail Finland's struggle for independence. Mr. Sigfridsson plays the halting cello figures of the slow movement with his left hand, interjecting alarums with his right as the Russian armies approach. The optimistic 14-minute finale is the most difficult to bring off, but this skilled piansit makes it work.

The Fifth Symphony is even more interesting, with the famous "ringing horns" of the last movement sounding forth in the bass notes of the piano, held down with careful use of the sustain pedal to recreate the original, antiphonal effect. Mr. Sigfridsson's transcription addsa uniform, almost Bach-like effect, as the noble themes sound forth.

These Sibelius transcriptions exhibit a very different style than the flashy concert works of the 19th century. Great attention is paid to inflection of the notes, to replicate a wind instrument, a rampart of brass, or a conductor siezed in the orgiastic waves of sound used to depict the rising Finnish people or the frozen tundras of Lapland. The result is wonderfully refreshing to the ears: great music stripped down to its barest essence.

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