Monday, August 30, 2010

Sibelius the Miniaturist

Those who follow me on know that I have been working my way through the volumes of The Sibelius Edition, the BIS project for a 70-CD collection of the complete works of Jean Sibelius. Having recently covered the familiar ground of his tone poems, I have begun to embark upon his chamber music. My first surprise was of how much of it there was, since it requires two volumes in the thirteen-volume series. My second surprise was, in the first volume, of how many of the tracks are less than a minute in duration. These are not abandoned sketches. The first disc in the volume has an entry labeled 33 Small Pieces, taken from a manuscript rather than a publication.

Before undertaking this project my primary experience with Sibelius was his symphonies and his violin concerto. I knew that the original version of the violin concerto was trimmed down in duration in the interest of a tighter presentation of its materials. Still, there is a sense of "vast expanse" in the music, even in shorter works such as the tone poems. Thus, it surprised me more than a little that, in the domain of chamber music, Sibelius would have at least experimented with being a miniaturist. These are not the intense miniatures that we encounter in Anton Webern. Rather, they are more like intimate glances that conclude before the listener is quite aware that something has happened. I am sure that, as I progress through Sibelius' personal chronology, I shall encounter the longer durations scales that I tend to associate with him; but I have found his early approach to brevity to be rather refreshing in the context of his later work.

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