Jean Sibelius: Complete Violin Sonatas


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    Jean Sibelius was barely three years old. when his father died. The child’s terrible loss was, at least partly, compensated by the presence of a loving and caring uncle, Pehr Sibelius. He would become Jean’s mentor, friend, model and inspiration, and some of Sibelius’ most important life choices were certainly influenced by his uncle’s personality and advice.
    Pehr was a businessman, but had manifold interests which he pursued in his free time. He loved to play the violin (frequently at impossible hours, such as 2am!), and being an amateur astronomer. The Finnish sky certainly provides many interesting stimuli for stargazers, provided – that is – that one is unafraid of the cold. Jean was no less enthused than his uncle when it came to stars, but perhaps he was slightly less convinced by the conditions in which such observations took place. As an adult, the composer would frequently recall the “beastly cold” (his words) excursions during a Christmas holiday, when uncle and nephew went out by night to observe the meteors. Still, in spite of the literally Polar atmosphere of Northern nights in the midst of winter, those visual impressions would leave their mark on the artist who would become the musical icon of his country. Sibelius went on to recall how his uncle’s passion could have become Jean’s own job: speaking of Pehr, he said that “Astronomy was his dominating passion and he would have preferred both me and my younger brother to devote ourselves to that science. However, he raised no objection when I went in for music”.
    If Pehr was a nightbird, who enjoyed the long Norther nights for both astronomical and musical activities, Sibelius was possibly less keen on playing the violin in the heart of night; however, his interest in the violin (as well as in the stars, as we will shortly see) was perhaps determined in turn by Pehr’s love for that instrument.
    Actually, Sibelius’ first steps in the world of music did not take place on the violin’s fingerboard, but rather on the piano’s keyboard. Aged five, he liked to explore the piano’s sounds and to find chords by pressing the instrument’s keys. Certainly, for a small boy eager to experiment with sounds, the piano was more intuitive and immediate an instrument than the violin.
    Still, possibly due to his uncle, or possibly independent of him, Sibelius would grow to love the violin much more than the piano. Only in Fall 1881 did the child begin to receive regular violin courses, under the guide of Gustaf Levander, a bandmaster, even though it is more than likely that he had experimented with that instrument at an earlier date. However, the start of his official violin studies coincided with, and probably determined, the blossoming of the boy’s love for music. As he wrote himself, speaking to his biographer Karl Ekman, “Music grasped me with a power that rapidly relegated all my other interests to the background. That was when I began to study the violin in earnest”.
    When he reached the age of twenty, uncle Pehr presented him with a good violin, possibly a Stainer, which remained among Sibelius’ most cherished possessions for his entire life. In several letters, Jean, then a music student, asked his uncle for violin strings. He loved that instrument intensely, and would have wished to become a violin virtuoso. In his own words, “The violin took possession of me. During the ten years that followed it was my dearest wish, the loftiest goal of my ambition, to become a great violin virtuoso”. At the Helsinki Academy, Sibelius played the violin in quartet and in orchestra, at times performing also as a soloist. His technique was certainly good, as is testified by the repertoire he played, including two movements from Mendelssohn’s magnificent Violin Concerto, performed at a students’ concert. In spite of this, what Sibelius liked most, in the violin, was the musical freedom it afforded. Freedom from musical constraints, which allowed him to improvise for long stretches of time; freedom even from physical limitations, as he loved to take his violin with him when strolling in the gorgeous Finnish nature; he would stop by rivers, lakes, or in the forests, and play the violin framed by the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
    Sibelius’ ambitions as a violin virtuoso were sadly to be frustrated. Sibelius was a relative latecomer in the world of professional musicianship; his fortune was that he lived in a peripheral area of Europe, where competition was not as high as in other countries. However, when Ferruccio Busoni, who was his junior by a few months, arrived in Helsinki as an invited Professor of Piano (and this happened at a time when Sibelius was still a student), he was quick to realize that the international standards of virtuosity were by then unattainable by him. Nevertheless, he did compete (but unsuccessfully) for a job as a violin player in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1891; and for some years after that he cooperated occasionally with the Helsinki Philharmonic Society Orchestra, conducted by Robert Kajanus, who was Sibelius’ longtime friend and a convinced apostle of his music. He also kept playing with his siblings: Linda was a pianist and Christian a cellist, and therefore rewarding chamber music could be played without going out from the family house. They also performed publicly, and this possibility of having his chamber music works performed as soon as ink was dry on the page certainly encouraged Sibelius to conceive and compose chamber music.
    Even though Sibelius’ activity as a violinist tended to diminish in time, the violin remained his favourite instrument; only for the piano did he write more works than he left for the violin, and certainly some of his finest pieces are found in the violin repertoire.
    Between 1884 and 1889, Sibelius wrote two Sonatas and two Suites for violin and piano; indeed, they are the most important chamber music works he composed in his youthful years. The Sonata in A minor is really among the first fruits of his artistic vein. Written in 1884, it is Sibelius’ major work for violin and piano. With its classical structure, it does not display characters or traits of extreme originality, but this would be asking for too much of a composer who had only recently accepted the challenges of the complex Sonata form. An unexpected element, to be sure, is found in the tonal organization of the movements, which is decidedly unconventional.
    Another attempt to craft a Sonata for violin and piano dates from the following year (1885), when the composer created an imposing and solemn movement in D major which he likely intended to be as the opening movement of a complex and demanding work; however, as far as we know no attempts were made to create or even draft the remaining movements.
    A different perspective is needed when evaluating and discussing the F-major Sonata, which follows the preceding one by five years. In spite of the youthful energy of the piece, and of some compositional traits which reveal what Sibelius had still to learn as a composer, it is a fully-fledged piece, worthy of a place in the international concert repertoire. Sibelius’ deep knowledge of the performing techniques of both the piano and the violin explains the work’s complex writing and the technical challenges it poses to both performers.
    One of this Sonata’s most intriguing traits, however, is its hidden programme: a very detailed itinerary, which Sibelius carefully and precisely described to his uncle Pehr. In Sibelius’ words (the letter is dated July 6th, 1889), “The 1st movement in 2/4 F major is vigorous and daring, and also sombre, with some splendid episodes; the 2nd movement in A minor is Finnish and melancholy; in it a true Finnish girl is weeping in the A string; next a few country boys perform a Finnish dance and try to coax the girl to smile, but she keeps singing with even more feeling and wistfulness than before; the 3rd movement 3/8 in F major is fresh and spirited and dreamy. People are out on a meadow, celebrating Midsummer Eve, singing and playing. Then a shooting star falls among them. They are surprised but continue with their games, but they cannot play as freely as before, since everybody has become more serious. Finally the atmosphere becomes gloomy and grand (the shooting star!) and also their playing becomes joyful”.
    Curiously, such a momentous event as a meteor’s fall does not appear prominently in Sibelius’ music; probably, this programme should be intended more as a spiritual suggestion rather than as a step-by-step description. The third movement, where this event takes place, appears to render it musically simply as a slowing down of the beat in the central section, but this is unproved and speculative.
    Interestingly, and perhaps meaningfully (even though there may be simple explanations for this), Sibelius imagined this observation of the shooting stars taking place at the time when most amateur photographers are looking for them, i.e. in midsummer; certainly not in the equally fascinating but (his words) “beastly cold” winter.
    Musically, the influence of Edvard Grieg is clearly discernible, but the same can be said of the young composer’s landmark tendency to employ folk tunes from the Finnish tradition: it is still an unsystematic practice at this stage of his compositional activity, but it is clearly recognizable as an anticipation of his later works. This Sonata was premiered by the composer on July 16th, at a charity concert in Lovisa, and just before the beginning of his studies in Berlin.
    This CD’s programme is completed by a much later work, the Sonatina op. 80. As he wrote in his diary, on Christmas Day 1914, “a planned ‘Sonata I for violin and piano’… Perhaps! The idea has been with me for a long time – since the 1880s, when I wrote two such pieces”. And indeed more than a hint of nostalgia for his youth and the dreams of glory he had had at that time are found in this mature piece: “‘Dreamed that I was twelve years old and a virtuoso. My childhood sky is full of stars – so many stars”. Once more, the violin is bound for him to the regrets for a failed performing career, but also, and much more positively, to the fascination for the stars, as had been expressed also in the F-major Sonata (and alluding once again to Uncle Pehr’s interest in both the stars and the violin).
    Different from his earlier works, however, this piece shows a more objective and detached Sibelius, who, by then, was in full control of the compositional material, and who could handle it less directly and emotionally. Even though these emotions are less subjective than they used to be, however, they are by no means less pronounced, and the full palette of the composer’s expressive resources is put on display with this splendid work.
    Chiara Bertoglio © 2023


    Emma Arizza, Violin
    Winner of the Musicians’ Company Award 2019, Emma Arizza has established a fine career as a concert violinist. A native of Como, Italy, Emma regularly performs throughout her home country and the UK, as a soloist and in various ensembles. She graduated from the Como Conservatory and continued her studies at the Royal College of Music, where she graduated with distinction in 2019.
    She then obtained her Master of Arts in Music Performance with distinction at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, supported by the Gladys Bratton Scholarship, the Alan Niekirk Scholarship and the Tillett Trust.
    Ever since her debut in Romania at the age of 16 playing the Sibelius concerto, Emma’s performances have taken her across Europe, with concerts in France, Greece, the Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Israel and the UK.
    She has performed at the Rachmaninov Hall (Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory), Sale Apollinee at La Fenice Theatre (Venice), Palazzo Pitti (Florence), Teatro Sociale (Como), Zandonai Theatre (Rovereto), Sala Verdi (Milan), St. James’s Piccadilly, and many others.
    She has attended masterclasses with the likes of Sergej Krylov, Zakhar Bron (Sommer Academie Salzburg Mozarteum) and the Tchaikovsky Trio.
    Emma has won numerous national and international competitions in Italy, as a soloist and in chamber ensembles, including the Rassegna Castrocaro Classica, one of the highest Italian prizes, at which she was also awarded the Audience Prize. Awards to date also include the Biennial Violin Competition Vittorio Veneto (Special Prize for talent and excellence).
    She was artist in residence for the Fondazione La Società dei Concerti di Milano (season 2018/2019).
    As well as being an acclaimed performer, Emma is also an active educator and teacher.
    In 2021 she has been selected as Benedetti Foundation Ambassador, where she continues to expand her knowledge and skills on music education, health and wellbeing, workshops leading and much more.

    Stefano Marzanni, Piano
    Eclectic Pianist Stefano Marzanni has performed regularly across Europe and received his Master in piano performance from the Royal College of Music, studying under Dina Parakhina. His studies were generously supported by a Kenneth and Violet Scott Award and the Pidem Foundation Award.
    Stefano performs regularly as a pop and jazz pianist and keyboard player. He attended masterclasses and workshops with jazz pianists such as Tom Cawley, Barry Green and Simon Purcell and Barry Harris. In 2012, Stefano attended a pop song composition course at the Centro Europeo di Toscolano (CET), the pop music school headed by the Italian songwriter Mogol.
    Stefano was born in Brescia, Italy and received a Diploma in Piano (full marks with honors) from Conservatorio “Luca Marenzio” where he studied with Riccardo Bettini. He later studied at the Conservatorio “G.Verdi” in Milano with Vincenzo Balzani.
    As a classical pianist in collaboration with violinist Emma Arizza, Stefano has performed at numerous venues and festivals in UK and Italy including the “Kings Place” ,the Royal Albert Hall and St James’s Picadilly in London and the Lyceum Club internazionale in Florence. Stefano has attended masterclasses with internationally renowned musicians such as Leonid Margarius, Filippo Gamba, Natalia Trull, Riccardo Risaliti, Cristiano Burato, Riccardo Zadra.
    Stefano has also played regularly as a pianist in theatrical productions, including ‘Parfumul Strazilor’ in collaboration with the actress Sandra Mangini .The show was performed in theatre festivals including LMA,Lido Music Agosto in Venice, Forum Altenberg in Bern, Scene di Paglia Festival in Padova and the theatre of Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Most recently, Stefano produced and presented two theatrical shows “Paris Mon Amour” and “Vienna laboratory of the end of the world”, with the singer Elena Lorenzi, about the music scene in Paris and Vienna at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.


    Jean Sibelius (b Hämeenlinna, 8 Dec 1865; d Järvenpää, 20 Sept 1957). Finnish composer. He was the central figure in creating a Finnish voice in music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most significant output was orchestral: seven symphonies, one violin concerto, several sets of incidental music and numerous tone poems, often based on incidents taken from the Kalevala, the Finnish-language folk epic. His work is distinguished by startlingly original adaptations of familiar elements: unorthodox treatments of triadic harmony, orchestral colour and musical process and structure. His music evokes a range of characteristic moods and topics, from celebratory nationalism and political struggle to cold despair and separatist isolation; from brooding contemplations of ‘neo-primitive’ musical ideas or slowly transforming sound textures to meditations on the mysteries, grandeurs and occasionally lurking terrors of archetypal folk myths or natural landscapes. A master of symphonic continuity and compressed, ‘logical’ musical structure, he grounded much of his music in his own conception of the Finnish national temperament. Throughout the 20th century Finland regarded him as a national hero and its most renowned artist. Outside Finland, Sibelius's reputation has been volatile, with passionate claims made both by advocates and detractors. The various reactions to his music have provided some of the most ideologically charged moments of 20th-century reception history.